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Developing Leadership Skills – A Challenge for L&D

Bob Little 

February 26, 2016

As any experienced L&D professional knows, leaders ultimately – among other things – set the tone for the L&D activities in their organizations. However, they can be resistant to having L&D activities applied to themselves!

Yet, in today’s rapidly changing world, any existing or potential leader’s skill set must include the ability to initiate, institute, inspire, and successfully lead change. That means that L&D professionals have a key role to play in facilitating the development of this skill set among their organizations’ leaders.

The problem is that there are many recognized leadership types. The L&D professional not only has to understand all of the various leadership theories, but also has to facilitate the development of the appropriate leadership style. This is for both the leader(s) in question and the organization, given its prevailing culture.

Psychologist Kurt Lewin developed his leadership styles framework in the 1930s, arguing that there are three major styles of leadership:

  • Autocratic leaders make decisions without consulting their team members, even if their input would be useful
  • Democratic leaders include team members in the decision-making process.
  • Laissez-faire leaders give their team members freedom in how they do their work, and how they set their deadlines.

There’s even a leadership style matrix, developed by Eric Flamholtz and Yvonne Randle and published in their 2007 book, “Growing Pains.”

Then there are a number of recognized leadership types, including but not limited to:

  • Adaptive leadership – taking people out of their comfort zones, letting them feel external pressure, and exposing conflict.
  • Dispersed leadership – connected with leading a geographically dispersed team.
  • The hero – who leads from the front with determination, vision and independence of mind. A hero leader relies on his or her profile-raising skills and personal brand.
  • Visionary leaders – offer a vision of the future, or have a strong story. These tend to be the most memorable leaders, but there are signs that today’s followers need a credible story that stands up to scrutiny, rather than just an exciting, inspiring and compelling one.
  • The servant – puts the needs of the team before his own.
  • Transformational leaders – show integrity, and know how to develop a robust, inspiring vision of the future. They motivate people to achieve this, manage its delivery, and build stronger, more successful teams.
  • Transactional leadership – based on the idea that team members agree to obey their leader, so the leader has a right to “punish” team members if their work doesn’t meet an appropriate standard. Its benefits include that it clarifies everyone’s roles and responsibilities. Team members who are ambitious, or who are motivated by external rewards – including compensation – often thrive. On its own, transactional leadership can be amoral and lead to high staff turnover, since team members can do little to improve their job satisfaction.

There’s also the concept of inner leadership. This is what goes on inside the leader, whereas outer leadership is about what the leader does. Harmonizing outer and inner leadership is important for achieving organizational change successfully.

Hugo Heij, head of IMLS Coaching & Consulting, and a member of Fluid Business Coaching, says, “In his book, ‘Good to Great,’ Jim Collins discusses why some organizations are great at leadership while others are merely ‘good’. He concludes that all great organizations have leaders that combine humility and will.

“These leaders put others – their team – first but they are also clear about where the organization needs to go and are dedicated to getting the organization there. In my experience, this combination of humility and will in a leader is a powerful combination.

“Often, when organizations are failing, their leaders blame their team – but it never occurs to them to look at themselves.”

As a devotee of Dr John Kotter’s work on leading change, Hugo also points out that organizational change specialists are always ready to apply change models in organizations – and then wonder why they don’t work. He says, “That’s because they have to adapt these models to the particular circumstances and then ensure that they get the attention of everyone in the organization.

“Introducing and leading change often fails because no one knows why the change is necessary. Leaders may be aware of why changes are needed but others in the organization may not. So, it’s important for leaders to communicate their vision. Leaders make the mistake of assuming that people understand their vision – but they must always continue to communicate that vision.

“Of course, when it comes to leading change, it’s too easy to highlight the things that aren’t progressing well – or quickly. While concentrating on these things, leaders can easily forget to celebrate what goes right. They should always emphasize the positive.”

All of this illustrates that leadership can be hard to define and carry out – and it means different things to different people. Moreover, real leadership has nothing to do with, and can even be said to be the antithesis of, “management.”

To be successful, all leaders, regardless of their leadership style or type, must choose the right action at the right time, and “keep a steady eye on the ball.” They must be courageous, self-aware, and ensure the consistent support of their team of followers.

To be equally successful, L&D professionals have to ensure that their organization’s leaders are equipped to do all of these things.

Hugo stresses that, when it comes to developing leadership qualities in existing or would-be leaders, there’s a great difference between theory and practice. He says, “It’s like driving a car.

“You can learn the theory quite quickly but that doesn’t make you a great driver. Achieving that requires some longer-term development, probably involving a number of carefully selected projects allied to some coaching and mentoring.

“Moreover, true leaders make sure that they continue to develop their leadership skills throughout their careers.”

Dave Webber, an experienced HR/change leader and former director of business services and HR at the Workers’ Educational Association, tends to agree with Hugo, but from a more L&D rather than a coaching and mentoring perspective. Next week, you can read his views on developing leaders and leadership skills.

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