Leadership Development:
Can Corporate Leadership Skills be Taught?

Leadership Development:
Can Corporate Leadership Skills be Taught?

Drawing upon your own thoughts and beliefs around leadership, fill in the blanks below:

Leadership is made up of  ____% natural ability and ____% hard work and effort.

How you completed that equation may have exposed your belief about whether or not leadership is something that can be learned. Psychologist Carol Dweck’s work suggests that how we respond to these sorts of questions reflects two fundamental mindsets: a fixed mindset that sees qualities like leadership as “set in stone;” and a growth mindset that views such qualities as malleable and transformable through effort.

Dweck’s self-theories have important and significant ramifications for understanding how we behave. If you, as many do, describe leadership as mostly derived from natural ability, you are effectively reducing or even ruling out the option of developing leadership. Obviously, this is a major barrier to the notion of someone learning to lead.

Despite evidence to the contrary, many people deeply believe that leadership is something you either have or don’t have. According to this view, some are born to lead and some are born to follow. But this is not true. Leadership is eminently learnable, and there are three simple steps that any firm can take to develop the leadership culture their organization needs right now.

STEP 1: Trigger Leadership Development

Doing things differently and doing different things is perhaps the simplest way to describe what triggers personal and professional development. Being placed in an unfamiliar and challenging situation forces us to re-think and reorganize how we think about our role, our relationships with colleagues, and the organization in which we are a part.

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A classic technique for triggering leadership development is to present delegates with a collection of tasks that removes them from the familiarity of their day-to-day job. For example, take a group in the morning and give them the task of putting together an internal video news bulletin. This will require them to find stories about their organization and its people, devise a running order, interview and film, edit each sequence into a running order, and create an overall package that can be ‘broadcast’ to their colleagues in the business. They will have to assume a range of roles, from producer to correspondent to anchor. Provide them with all the technical equipment required and an editor who can support them, but beyond that they are on their own.

The task requires rapidly developing new working relationships and creating something that deals with the familiar topic of your organization and the people who work for it, but in an unfamiliar way. In addition to helping employees see organization from a different perspective, this activity demands the exercise of a whole host of leadership skills, including working as a team, planning and aligning activities, and communicating ideas in a compelling way.

The task can be even closer to their actual work roles. Perhaps they could simulate being the board of directors for a company similar to the organization they work for. But the principle is the same: unfamiliar and challenging.

This process aims to create leaders from the “inside to out.” Consider an individual who finds herself promoted to a position of responsibility for others in a large accountancy practice. As someone in exactly that position described to me, “I’m now being asked to be a leader, but I’m not sure how to lead. And I’m an accountant, not a leader.”

We often make the mistake of subjecting our accountant to lessons in leadership that extol various models or theories. These can be interesting and sometimes useful, but they offer an “outside to in” approach—essentially attempting to graft generic leadership skills onto the individual’s existing skillset. It rarely works.

There is another way: viewing leadership as an opportunity to leverage the individual’s technical ability as an accountant (or IT expert or engineer) and actually developing those professional skills and values alongside a complementary set of leadership skills.

At Kaplan, we embody this in our Double Helix approach to leadership development. Put simply, this type of development integrates the professional expertise it takes to lead with the behavioral insight that must inform it. Our ‘Trigger Events’ challenge learners to operate at three levels…the team, the organization, and the wider environment:

  1. The Team.How does my team interact to make decisions? How does this affect the decisions that are made? How do the team members’ technical and behavioral issues inform each other?
  2. The Organization.How is my organization structured? What are the processes and practices that shape our behaviors and actions? How are these processes affecting our performance and outcomes?
  3. The Wider Environment.What is the competitive landscape we operate in? What are the social, political, and economic factors at play? What does this mean for us at every level?

Step 2: Support the Outcome of the Trigger Event

Trigger Events need to be supported in a number of key ways. The first is through active reflection and self-directed learning. Providing leaders with the tools and support to think through their experiences and take control of their own development is essential. This can be done in a number ways, including journaling and self-study. Kaplan’s unique Learning Science perspective can provide a wealth of insights and accelerate their learning.

Leadership is also social and relational. Support can come in the form or peer groups that encourage learners to pool their experiences and develop a shared sense of leadership values and priorities. This creates the social capital that drives change and reform in a business. Coaching can also be invaluable. A good coach who can pose difficult questions, challenge the learner’s view, and track and monitor commitments can make all the difference.

Step 3: Embed Leadership Development into the Fabric of Your Corporate Culture

Leadership is contextual. It does not exist independently of its application. It is made and remade in the moment and within the context of the task, the team, the organization, and the wider environment. Active learning approaches can be useful in embedding the lessons—essentially setting assignments and projects that challenge learners to work together across the business and constantly test and apply their leadership skills. Teaching assignments for the learners are useful too. After all, why invest in a group’s learning without expecting them to pass it on? This distributed learning consolidates development and spreads good practice.

Finally, do not leave leadership development entirely to the experts. Too often, leadership development is outsourced entirely. Engaging expertise around how to structure, design, and support development is essential, but so is using some of your best people as mentors and role models. The goal is to not only pass on the required skills and knowledge, but also to model leadership behaviors and culture.

Whether leadership can be taught or not largely depends on your efforts to create and set the conditions where it can be learned. That can be accomplished by following the simple steps of trigger, support, and embed.

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