Three design principles for Leadership Development

In the last three decades, the business world has become more complex than ever before. This complexity is mainly driven by two factors:

  • Globalization – Never before in the history of mankind have materials, capital and people moved faster and more freely across our planet
  • Technology – The amount of data we have at our disposal for decision making is dramatically increasing each year

As a result, our world has become more interconnected and interdependent than ever. A case in point are the supply chain issues businesses experienced in the initial stage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This interconnectedness and interdependence has huge implications for the way organizations need to operate, both externally as well as internally.

Our organizations were built for stability – and that needs to change

According to Robert Kegan , the classic 19th century idea was that organizations are built for stability. Of course, every couple of years a reorganization, crisis, technology change or acquisition took place, but the overall notion businesses operated on was one of long periods of stability, interrupted by these occasional changes. 

Nowadays organizations need to deal with the opposite situation: constant change with the occasional period of stability.

The combination of increased complexity, due to interconnectedness,  interdependency, and speed of change, make it necessary to increase the integrative and adaptive capabilities of our organizations

‘To survive and thrive, nowadays organizations need to develop themselves faster than their environment; they need to ‘upskill or die’.

Katarina Berg

How can organizations develop themselves?

The answer to how organizations can develop themselves to successfully deal with this increased complexity in a successful way is simple, but infinitely complex at the same time: organizations can only develop themselves by developing their people. 

This is especially true for the leaders of these organizations.

Changing our behaviors is difficult

We all know that changing our behaviors is hard. There are many theories that offer explanations for this phenomenon. One of the more interesting explains this by the fact that one behavioral changes actually requires two simultaneous changes at the same time: 

  • Disrupt a current habit – Often our current habit is something we are good at and served us well in the past. This could be, for example, the ability to quickly take tough decisions and execute them in a swift manner. This is an excellent skill to have as a business leader in a very competitive and fast moving market. However, it is probably less suitable for corporate roles where long-term sustainable solutions are required, and where the buy-in of peers, and collaboration with them, is crucial. 
  • Acquire a new habit –  Acquiring a new habit is difficult, since it requires us to learn and practice something new. Let’s take networking skills for instance. If we have not mastered this, chances are that we never learned it because we never needed it, but possibly also because adopting and practicing this habit did not appeal to us (e.g. because we thought it was ‘slimy’).

This means that if we try to change our behaviors, we often need to let go of something we are good at and served us well in the past, and adopt a behavior we do not master (yet), and which we find difficult to learn. 

No wonder we often experience relapses when trying to change our behaviors, or give up trying completely.

What has this to do with leadership development?

Knowing that change is necessary, but at the same very hard, has three important implications for the way organizations develop their people.

  1. Learning in the flow of work
  2. Learning with others
  3. Humility

Learning in the flow of work

First of all, we need to make the distance between the theory and the daily lives of learners as small as possible. Learners need to be able to apply what they learnt as soon as possible, otherwise the ‘forgetting curve’ sets in. 

This means that, wherever possible, we need to break down the barrier between working and learning. Instead, we need to bring our work into our learning process and our learning into our daily work.

Learning with others

According to Peter Senge, learning is something deeply personal and inherently collective at the same time. 

Amy Edmondson explains this by stating that, we need (and can), only write our stories together with others. Therefore psychologically safe teams and communities of practice are so important for our learning processes.

‘Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential’. 

Winston Churchill


Finally, we as consultants and trainers need to be humble and empathetic. Too often have we been looking at participants in development programs as if they had deficits that we, with our superior knowledge, insights and techniques, could ‘fix’. 

The fact is that we need to learn just as much as the people we want to help to develop. Something we can only do if we ‘level’ with them. My good friend and change management expert Arend Ardon uses a beautiful analogy to describe this: ‘Use the self-timer of your camera to enable yourself to take a photo where you appear as a part of the system you are trying to change’.

In this context, it is also important to keep in mind that, the more senior the audience, the higher the chance is that they already know ‘the theory’ (they probably also read the HBR). Therefore it is important that we, together with them, focus on what is holding us back to apply the theory in our daily work.

Why leadership development is a C suite topic

According to Robert Kegan, organizations need to abolish their limiting 19th-century paradigm about stability, and adopt a new one: develop the capability to take care of our own transformation. This change has to start with the behaviors of the leaders at the top of the organization, because they set the tone for their teams.

A good place for them to start might be to follow the example of Microsoft and move from a ‘know it all’, to a ‘learn it all’ culture.

Talking about humility….

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