Leadership Development: The Key to a Successful Program Isn’t What You Think

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A version of this article was originally published in Consulting Magazine.

Harriet Tubman was an unintended but extraordinary leader. I recently watched her life’s story play out on the big screen and was inspired by the perilous journey to freedom she took again and again on behalf of herself and others. The grit, the courage, the aliveness and ferocity with which she lived out her life’s purpose forever emblazons her in my mind as an exceptional leader.

Her story got me thinking about leadership development more broadly. Specifically, what does it take for people to develop the kind of leadership qualities that Harriet herself grew into? Without precedents to draw from or prior experience dealing with complex dynamics and situations – how can new, emerging leaders develop the clarity and conviction to craft a path forward, take risks, and inspire others to action? In this article, we explore what it takes for leadership programs to reach these depths – and why most programs unwittingly fall short of cultivating the seeds of extraordinary leadership.

As context, corporations are spending massively to help leaders extend their capabilities and work more effectively with others. The latest estimates show the leadership development market as the fastest growing segment in the training world over the last 10 years, with an annual spend of more than $3.5 billion by the close of 2019. The majority of these programs naturally hone in on skill development – “the how.” And yet, when I consider qualities leaders must also possess to navigate modern-day complexities with grace and ease, what easily emerges includes being self-aware, mature, and purpose-driven – each of which requires deeply understanding “who I am” and how I’m wired. Now how realistic is it, you might ask, to increase leadership capacity in just these ways via developmental programs? What I would offer is that not only is this possible, finding a way to offer such programs at scale is increasingly vital for organizations to thrive and keep up with the growing demands of leadership.

So what does this entail? The bottom line is this: Preparing leaders to strengthen their inner world, and not just their visible outer skills, is what differentiates the truly best leadership development programs from the rest of the pack. Giving leaders the tools to sharpen their internal guides enables them to traverse the egoic land mines that get in the way when it matters most… as business pressure and stress levels rise.

Put another way, equipping leaders with the ability to discern what they are thinking and believing about their situation and the individuals involved in it, especially in the thick of the moment – and then deliberately choosing their response instead of merely reacting – is directly correlated to their effectiveness as leaders. Given this perspective, the best leadership development programs extend beyond simply showing leaders and teams how to “do” something new or different. They also teach them to investigate within, recognize the beliefs that hold them back, and learn to shift and move beyond them. This is leadership development at its finest.

Wisdom isn’t about accumulating more facts; it’s about understanding big truths in a deeper way… – Melinda Gates, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World

To illustrate – take the ubiquitous skill of delivering feedback. Most of us would agree that the ability to give direct feedback is integral to improving performance. Without clear expectations and quality feedback, it’s hard to imagine a workforce evolving in just the way it needs to for an organization to succeed. At the same time, why is it that a person can receive the exact same feedback from two separate people – or even the same person on another day – and have it land quite differently? This is because at its core, skillful feedback conversations are not based on rote delivery. They require self-awareness, internal clarity, authenticity, and courage, which are generally not taught in traditional training programs. An extraordinary feedback dialogue requires reading the situation, exploring and understanding where the other person is coming from in this moment, and engaging with profound openness in a two-way dialogue.

Preparing leaders for far more than technical managerial skills is no longer a nice-to-have to compete in today’s world – it’s a hands-down must. Accumulating knowledge and skills alone is grossly insufficient to handle nuanced, difficult situations. So if it’s possible to include and integrate a dynamic form of development in leadership programs, why not do so? The most effective programs available today support managers in gaining self-leadership and mastery through hands-on experience and deep introspection – which in turn propels them to better serve and lead others.

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