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How to Learn the Art of Good Leadership

Bob Little 

July 21, 2017

According to conventional workplace wisdom, “good” leadership relies on managing people effectively. This is vital if your people are to achieve optimum productivity levels each day. After all, a happy and healthy workforce will more likely be hard working and loyal to their organization.

This has implications for L&D professionals. Not only must they help to develop employees’ leadership and management skills, they also need to help people to achieve these optimum productivity levels (and keep them as happy as possible in the process).

Happiness is Key to Organizational Success

In her recently published book, ‘Learning for Organizational Development,’ Eileen Arney says, “Much research has been devoted to explaining whether there is a positive relationship between particular people management practices and improved performance, and a number of studies have found that there is… Further research into the people management practices associated with improved performance practices… has identified the importance of line managers’ leadership and management skills.”

She identifies some of these, including having a boss who shows respect and listens to their people’s concern.

Business coach Amy Deane, who runs the coaching program Encourage, agrees. She explains, “Not all organizations are receptive to the ‘softer side’ of people management practices, but every organization needs to keep a focus on productivity, profitability and the bottom line.

“Numerous reports demonstrate that, alongside the high cost involved in replacing staff members who leave because they’re unhappy for whatever reason, appreciating and valuing employees not only saves money, it makes money! So these are among the key skills for would-be successful bosses.”

People Management Versus Leadership

So what does people management actually involve?

Well, according to Hugo Heij, head of IMLS Coaching & Consulting and a member of Fluid Business Coaching, “Although it’s in general usage, the term ‘people management’ is meaningless. You manage things, but you lead people.”

Probably unknowingly, Heij is echoing Major General Julian Thompson – a British commander in the 1982 Falklands War. He said of leadership that, “For fixed (things), you need management; for variables (people), you need leadership.”

Some years earlier, in 1957, another military man, Field Marshall Sir William Slim, then Governor General of Australia, expressed these sentiments in a speech to the Australian Institute of Management. He said, “Leadership is of the spirit… its practice is an art. Management is of the mind… its practice is a science. Managers are necessary. Leaders are essential.”

Soft Skills Benefit People and Profits

So, if people skills are at the heart of leading people successfully, then one of the best ways to improve them is by building up your soft skills. Not only can this help to build team relationships, it can also have a big payoff for the organization’s bottom line.

As Heij explains, “Experience shows that investing in soft skills development brings substantial benefits to any organization’s bottom line. Developing these soft skills are important because, when the right people do the right things, they sustain the organization’s bottom line. It’s the soft skills that generate the hard cash.

“If you want to grow a business, you’re dependent on people. We’ve moved from the ‘industrial worker’ to the ‘knowledge worker’ stage in our economic development. These days, business success isn’t about who owns the biggest machines but, rather, about who has the best people.

“So, if you develop people’s soft skills, your business success won’t just depend on you. Rather, it’ll rest with all the workers in your organization.”

Heij, Deane and others agree that people tend to be more effective at leading people when they have strong soft skills. But such skills are not as important when you “manage” a team. To achieve this, you must make sure that work is up to scratch and delivered on time. So, when we talk about management, we are really talking about the practicalities of leading a team. This side of the leadership, therefore, requires practical skills, such as organizational ability and time management.

The Art of Leadership

The art of leadership has been studied over many centuries and from various perspectives, particularly that of the military. Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, for instance, uses the motto “Serve to Lead.”

It is also the title of an anthology on leadership which was co-authored by Britain’s famous wartime prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill. The book provides insights about motivation, leadership and morale that we can apply to both the corporate and military worlds.

Modern L&D professionals can build on this approach by introducing a corporate culture of “Serve to Learn” as well as “Serve to Lead.”

How Can We Learn to Lead?

Perhaps it would be more useful to design a learning program for executives that promotes the concept of “Learning to Lead and Leading to Learn.” This, however, raises the issue of how we learn.

Richard Lowe, director of the L&D consultancy Hewlett Rand, suggests that experiential teaching could be the way forward. He recalls, “My drama teacher at school never lectured. For drama, we’d sit in a circle, while our teacher asked us questions – facilitating our learning, empowering us to talk freely about a play, the plot, and characterization.

“My drama classes were highly interactive and enjoyable, actively applying knowledge and skills through acting, singing and group discussions. It was experiential, immersive and facilitative – and these techniques truly engaged me as a young adult learner.

“As a training and digital learning consultant, I now realize that my drama teacher’s instruction style and the learning strategies were more to do with andragogy than pedagogy.”

Andragogy Versus Pedagogy in Learning

Andragogy is the art and science of helping adults to learn. In contrast, pedagogy is the art and science of educating children.

Pedagogy focuses on a teacher-led instruction. Courses are taught around a defined curriculum which is dictated to the learner by the teacher. Conversely, andragogy focuses on the learner’s needs. It’s an approach of which Plato, Socrates and Confucius, among others, were advocates.

The most well-known research into andragogy was conducted by adult education specialist Malcolm S. Knowles. He proposes that adult learning must fulfil six key criteria for learners if it is to be successful. These are:

1.  Its importance to learners. They need to understand the reason for learning something.

2. Experience. Their experience provides the basis for learning activities.

3. Self direction. Learners are responsible for their own learning, and get a say in how it’s planned and evaluated.

4. Relevance and benefit. The learning must have immediate relevance to their work and/or personal lives. 

5. It must solve a problem. Adult learning should be problem-centered, rather than content-oriented. 

6. Self motivation. Adults respond better to internal than external motivators when they learn.

Knowles’ andragogy-based approach is a far cry from “people management.” Instead, it’s more closely related to the idea of “leading people to learn.” As such, it might just work!

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