Leadership and Personal Development

(by George Telfer)

"Personally, I'm always ready to learn, although I don't always like being taught."
(Winston Churchill)

Developing leaders at every level is vital for any organisation attempting to gain competitive advantage. Increasingly viewed as fundamental to an organisation’s success, it has become integral to many training and development portfolios. However, the degree to which leadership can be taught remains limited. Leadership cannot be learned from simply reading about it or listening to even the best of lectures. It is learned and then applied through direct experience, more often ‘on the job’ but at times too when being removed from any direct involvement in day-to-day roles and responsibilities are best served through a more formalised training and development intervention. Roger Gill defines leadership development as “Knowing what to do, how to do it, wanting to do it, and then actually applying it.” Learning, therefore, means the continuous testing of experience and the transformation of that experience into knowledge and subsequently behaviours and actions.

The first step in developing any organisational learning initiative is to determine the essential needs within the organisation. Any personal development should then form a key component within this overall strategy to help bring both to fruition. Added to this should be the appropriate learning methodology, the right training provider and an effective evaluation process as further critical success factors. Breakthrough moments, thereafter, include the development of self-knowledge and the reshaping of personal perspectives and mindsets. Daniel Goleman also points out that personal motivation will further influence this learning process with people being most moved to pursue a learning strategy that fits with their own values. This then opens up the opportunity for personal development as well as an improvement to the company’s ‘bottom-line’.

Leadership development is a continuous process in learning and persuasion, thus getting people to do things differently to spur on organisational change. It means getting people to buy-in to what is best, not just for them but for other people too and for the benefit of the organisation. This requires personal integrity on the part of the learner, the willingness to empower others on the part of their manager and great coaching and enabling skills on the part of the provider. Even if means that management learns some difficult lessons of its own.

Comparable with Bloom’s ‘Taxonomy of Learning Domains’, leadership development has three converging tracks and as Roger Gill adds: “If we can integrate these, we have the recipe for effective leadership development”. Firstly, the cognitive aspect defines strategy and vision and creates something that people want to share. Secondly, and often a barrier to the transfer of learning, is the emotional one. As Robert Cooper states: “Emotions have long been considered of such power that, in Latin, they are described as the ‘motus anima’, meaning the spirit that moves us.” Thirdly, we have the behavioural elements that empower and inspire others. Rather than a defined leadership style, as many training providers profess, what this really amounts to is a pattern of behaviours perceived by others that can be understood by the learner.

Learning cannot nor should not be imposed, nor should it be about filling people full of facts and theories. In the case of leadership development, it is an inner quest, focusing on who we are and what we stand for as much as what we do. Since personal development essentially comes from within, we must always seek to enable others to learn by liberating potential and freeing up people to be more of themselves, more of the time and with more people. Through personal development comes the essential confidence to lead. It is primarily through self-confidence that we learn to lead in our own way.

(In the 1969 film, ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, Headmistress MacKay chastises Miss Brodie for her somewhat unorthodox methods and the growing precocity of her students. Miss Brodie nevertheless accepts this as a compliment: “To me, Headmistress, education is a ‘leading out’. The word education comes from the root ‘ex’, meaning ‘out’ and 'duco', I lead. Education is simply a 'leading out' of what is already there.” To this, Headmistress MacKay responds rather haughtily, “I had hoped there might also be a certain amount of putting in.” Miss Brodie laughs, replying: “That would not be education, but intrusion.”)

The process of leadership development should never be intrusive but invitational and self-propelling. The objectives and expected outcomes of LtEI’s programmes are outlined on our website but their wider outcomes and fullest impact, however, are ever dependant upon participants taking personal responsibility for their own learning objectives. Six requirements will prevail in this self-directed learning process:

o Engaging one’s own commitment to learning
o Having a level of self-awareness
o Being able to Identify and articulate personal strengths and development points
o Focusing on both of these, without letting any single one become the preoccupation
o Being open to feedback
o The appropriate external facilitation at the right time and in the right way.

John Kotter argues that the prime function of leadership is to create change through the knowledge that we have the attitudes and skills to confront the barriers that prevent it. Norman Dixon had previously identified the key barriers as being psychological and rooted in low self-esteem, a lack of self-confidence and the fear of failure or rejection. The conflict between one's intellectual awareness of the changes required and the emotional blocks that prevent them is where the internal civil-war in personal development lies. In our courses, a greater awareness of these blocks creates opportunities for feedback and the distillation of personal learning that can be applied in real life situations. Feedback encourages participants to challenge their existing thoughts and plenary sessions expose them to the fundamental concepts of thinking as a leader before acting as one, thus developing new insights into the role and responsibilities of a leader.

Thus leadership development is not an event but a process and although many of us know, few of us do. Acting upon what we know is probably the key challenge in any personal development process. Many of our participants are reluctant leaders; they have the intellectual awareness of what is required but are limited by a lack of confidence or because they don’t see themselves in leadership roles. A further threat to the developmental process is that people are already busy and cannot add anything more to their current routines. In such cases, learning only occurs when people determine when to say no and stop some of their current activities to make room for new ones. This highlights a real dichotomy and why it is that the organisation changes us before we can change it.

Learning also becomes effective in conditions where people feel safe. A sense of ‘psychological safety’ creates a productive climate of experimentation with less risk of embarrassment or failure. LtEI seeks to provide this safe environment with effective leadership, communication and teamwork developed through increased self-awareness, self-control and self-confidence thus creating the opportunity to integrate who we are with what we do. Three core characteristics will determine the quality of the learning:

o Discerning what is right and wrong
o Acting upon this, even at personal cost
o Saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right and wrong.

Relationships based on mutual support and trust, and gained through open and honest communication are fundamental in sustaining these characteristics. Without credible communication and clarity a leader will never capture the hearts and minds of others. Respect is also required to inspire and lead others and is earned by demonstrating integrity and credibility. Integrity is interpreted by Robert Cooper and Ayman Sawaf to mean “accepting full responsibility and having the courage to lead yourself and your team with honour.” Credibility is the foundation of leadership: “If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe in the message.” When drawing on help and support, people must judge where to place their trust and this can be daunting at times, yet leaders have to trust. Low trust will undermine the most innovative of learning strategies and their blind spots arise through selfish ambition and an insatiable need for personal recognition.

Much is written on what it takes to lead effectively and LtEI defines four personal attributes as atttitude, influence, clarity and action and if any of these are missing, effective leadership is undermined. Stephen Drotter highlights three further elements, describing skills as the requirement for executing changing responsibilities, ‘new time-frames’ that govern how we work, and ‘personal values’. As the teacher in James Hunter's ‘The Servant’ remarks: "Leadership is a skill set that can be acquired by anyone with the appropriate desire coupled with the appropriate actions.” Leadership development, however, must go beyond the training of skills and knowledge. Leadership is as much if not more of a relationship factor. Skills and knowledge being equal, we will work harder for people we like and we will like them in direct proportion to the way they make us feel. Personal values are important here because the people who make a true and positive difference in our lives are those who care. (When I think back to those great teachers who shaped the direction of my own future career, it’s hard to recall the drawings I drew, the capital cities of the world I oft recited and although my capacity to run, jump and throw have clearly diminished, I can never forget how three inspirational teachers in particular made me feel.)

Personal development will also mean understanding the part that personal choice will play. “The ability to chose our response is one of the glories of being human.” claims James Hunter. Viktor Frankl movingly encapsulated this in his harrowing account of survival in the concentration camps of Auschwitz:

"We, who lived in the camps remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last of his freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Attitude is key to personal development and may help in understanding why leadership, although possible to learn, remains difficult to teach. Leadership is a learning process, not a teaching one, and starts with self-awareness and self-control. John Adair reminds us that leadership is about action not position: “It is the most personal thing for the simple reason that it is just plain you” and describes it as “the ability to see the true nature of what is happening and the art of quietening the mind.” However, Cooper and Sawaf add a caveat: “Be willing to acknowledge that there are cynics who, no matter how hard you try to reach them, don’t want to be constructive, no matter what the issue.”

People, therefore, may need to acquire new ways of learning and leave some of the old ways behind. It isn’t so much about what we know but about how fast we can learn and the most valuable leadership lessons come from experience. In developing leaders within an organisation, we also have to acknowledge and ensure that the individual and the organisation have the capacity to learn and that the structures, norms and values are in place to enable this to happen.

When it comes down to the provision of leadership development, one of the reasons why leadership development may be less favoured in academic circles is that ‘learning leadership’ is undoubtedly difficult. It enters the emotional domain and a traditionally uncomfortable arena for academia. However, the primal source of leadership development is emotional. Daniel Golemen talks of an emotional resonance in leaders that brings out the best in people and sustains it by celebrating achievement and expanding possibilities, not just for oneself but for others too. Being out of touch with people lacks empathy and sincerity and exemplifies dissonant leadership. Stephen Covey proposes a ‘modus vivendi’ (a way of living), epitomised through ones’ personal standards, values and principles. He observes these ‘principled centred’ leaders as being ‘self oriented’, high on self-respect and continually learning:

o They listen to understand
o They speak to be understood
o They start dialogue from a point of agreement, and then move slowly to areas of disagreement.

Self-respect is fundamental here, as we cannot hope to feel good about ourselves unless living a life and leading and influencing others in a way that represents our own values.

Our participants are also encouraged to delve into ways to proactively deal with their personal fears. Fear remains a challenge in itself and for many people, perhaps the greatest challenge of all. People need to feel secure and in control and whether it is anxiety, angst or even terror, these are all states of uncertainty in which we feel helpless and prey to forces we cannot control. “Leadership doesn’t just happen,” wrote Mayor Giullani after the ‘9:11’ atrocities, “leaders need to control their emotions under pressure. Making the right choices under these circumstances is the most important part of leadership.” So much depends on good decision-making and intuition, two of the most sought after qualities in leadership.

Warren Bennis defines leadership as: “The capacity to create a compelling vision, translate it into action and sustain it.” However, a vision is of limited use if buried in flannelled text or delivered from behind a lectern. It requires emotion, trust, optimism and hope. To these, David Gilbert-Smith would add humility, “the antidote to arrogance and a vital leadership quality.”

The restrictions of an academic or theoretical route to leadership development have been outlined with the failure to apply what has been learned as the potentially negative characteristic of all personal development initiatives. Follow up is an important requirement and although many leadership programmes may lose their impact over time, if they follow the right principles improvements can last.

As previously started, the crux of leadership development lies in self-directed learning and the positive engagement with others. Our future may not always be in our control but most of what we become is in our power to create. Abraham Maslow claims that human beings are ultimately ‘self-determining’; what we become, we make of ourselves. In his words, we are a “perpetually wanting animal.”

A well-designed and structured learning intervention can facilitate personal development and the growth of an organisation's workforce but it needs to have an emotional commitment from the learners. Great work starts with great feeling and emotions are what move us to pursue our goals (first the feeling then the thought). A few lines from Goethe’s ‘Faustas - A Dramatic Mystery’ summarise the essence of personal development:

“What you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Begin it now.”


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