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Professionalizing leadership – development

Barbara Kellerman looks at three crucial areas of learning leadership: leadership education; leadership training; and leadership development. In this third and final post, she discusses the importance of leadership development and how it is encouraged and supported lifelong.

Learning to lead – like learning to practice any profession – should consist of a certain sequence in a certain order. Like doctors and lawyers, and for that matter like preachers and teachers and truck drivers and hairdressers, leaders should first be educated, then trained, and then developed. Previously we have addressed leadership education and training. What finally is meant by leadership development? How are leaders developed – as opposed to educated or trained?

For the purposes of this discussion a single useful comparison: between adult development and leadership development. Both share similar characteristics. First, like adult development, leadership development can be fostered and nurtured by others, such as teachers and trainers. But it consists, essentially, of a journey we undertake on our own, of work we do ourselves rather than of tasks imposed on us by someone else.

Second, leadership development like adult development is a process that is internal, not external. While it implies progress of some sort – progress from one stage, level, or plateau to the next – it is not progress that can easily be measured or even detected, such as having mastered certain subject or skill.

Development further implies the passage of time. Like adult development, leadership development takes time, ideally a lifetime of acquiring experience and expertise, becoming not just smarter but wiser. Above all, development suggests a process that is continuous – ongoing and never-ending. Though development remains in some ways elusive, it is nevertheless conceived of as being expansive and extended, holistic and inclusive.

We used to think that children and adolescents “develop,” but adults do not. The notion that adults also change goes back only about fifty years. Jean Piaget, the famed twentieth century Swiss psychologist, is among the early pioneers of human development. Of course, not all adult developmentalists think similarly. Some developmentalists center on alterations that come with age, as we transition, say, from early into middle adulthood.  Others focus on how we construct our lives, make meaning of our experience.. For instance, the term “identity-based leader development” refers neither to stage nor to age, but rather to experience, specifically to the experience of exercising leadership.

Never stop by Fab Lentz. Public domain via Unsplash.

What then are the implications of these theories for practice? Specifically, how should the leadership industry respond to the finding that, like adult development, leadership development implies a trajectory that continues indefinitely?

The military – which is the exception to the rule that leadership in America is taught too swiftly and superficially – provides a template. Most institutions and organizations ignore the idea that learning to lead takes time. But the military does not. Learning to lead at West Point, for example, is centered, explicitly, on the word “development.” As one of its publications, Building Capacity to Lead, makes clear, learning to lead “occurs in stages,” and involves “many of the same processes as those employed to develop more experienced adults.” In other words, the message that West Point sends is that learning to lead is a process, one that is evolutionary not revolutionary, and takes years or even decades, certainly not weeks or months. General Fred Franks, former commanding general of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, put it perfectly: “The longest developmental process we have in the United States Army is development of a commander. It takes less time to develop a tank – less time to develop an Apache helicopter – than it does to develop a commander. It takes anywhere from twenty-two to twenty-five years before we entrust a division of soldiers to a commander.”

The difference between how the military teaches how to lead, and how civilians teach how to lead, is enormous. The chasm is in leadership education and training – and in leadership development. Military personnel understand as civilians generally do not that  leadership development takes time, and that this in turn requires an investment that is long term, not short term.

This is not exactly rocket science. Institutions of higher education, as well as corporations and other organizations that invest heavily in teaching how to lead, could easily do a better – a more serious and conscientious – job of developing leaders than they do now. And they could do so without incurring significant additional costs. Here, for example, two simple steps.

First, encourage contexts and cultures conducive to development, conducive to enabling people to learn, to grow, to evolve over time to become somehow sturdier and better than they were before. In their book, An Everyone Culture, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey describe companies that refuse to separate the people who make up the business from the business itself. “Their big bet on a deliberately developmental culture is rooted in the unshakeable belief that business can be an ideal context for people’s growth, evolution, and flourishing.” Put differently, investments in leadership development should always be made in tandem with investments in adult development.

Second, leadership programs should take a cue from professions such as medicine and law, which now virtually mandate continuing education. The exercise of good leadership cannot possibly be learned, not to speak of mastered, in a single stroke. In a single course or executive session or degree program–or a single anything else at a single moment in time. Among other reasons, things change. Leaders change. Followers change. Contexts change. Which is why leaders must become lifelong learners – and why every leadership program should bake into the cake of its curriculum ways of continuing to educate, train, and develop.

Of all those who stand to benefit from continuing indefinitely to change and to grow, leaders surely rank among the most important. For those of us in the leadership industry, to continue to ignore this simple truth would be a dereliction of duty.

Featured image credit: Application Business Collaboration Colleagues by rawpixel. Public domain via Pixabay.

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