Re-imagining Training For Leaders Across All Levels

Re-imagining training for leaders

Brenda van Camp Brenda van Camp,
Founder & CEO, Upwardley

Leadership is critical to any organization’s growth, yet many businesses struggle with how to provide effective training for leaders. In fact, according to research by McKinsey, 9 out of 10 executives report that leadership development initiatives in their organizations fail to create effective leaders. Why is that and how do we need to re-imagine training for leaders to make it work?

Training for leaders is a process, not an event

Many organizations take a massed practice approach to the design of their leadership development programs by compressing content about a great number of different leadership competencies into just a few training sessions. In the space of just a few days, a participant learns about setting strategy and vision, creating effective communication channels, managing teams and developing staff, to name just a few topics normally covered.

While you can certainly teach an individual in one day a lot of theoretical and factual knowledge about how they should behave as a leader,  we all know that there are plenty of things we do, which we know aren’t what we should be doing, but that still isn’t enough to make us change. The real aim and challenge of your leadership development trainings is to help participants to adopt the required leadership behaviors as new habits, and that takes definitely a lot more than a few days!

The real aim and challenge of your leadership development training is to help participants to adopt the required leadership behaviors as new habits, and that takes definitely a lot more than a few days! #leadershipdevelopment #rethink Click To Tweet

Leadership development cannot be forced

To better understand what we need to do to support people to achieve lasting personal change, it is helpful to take a look at Stanford behavioral scientist Dr. BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model. His model states that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger. When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.

B=M+A+T means that a behavior occurs if Motivation and Ability and a Trigger converge. This is key to remember when designing training for leaders

Figure 1. B.J. Fogg’s Behavior Model

Now, to illustrate how the Fogg Behavior model works, let’s apply it to the concept of creating behavior change in a leader. The new desired leadership behavior on its own is likely easy from a skills perspective [for example, listen more, talk less], so Ability for the new behavior is not an issue. However, unlearning the old habitual behavior [talk a lot] is actually really hard to do, so as a result the overall Ability to achieve this change (new behavior + undo old behavior) is actually low – i.e. hard to do. As per Dr. BJ Fogg’s model, illustrated below, this means that someone needs to be really motivated to successfully pursue that behavior change.

Fogg Behavior Model shows that the harder it is to do something, the more motivation you need to actually do it. So when we design training for leaders, we need to realize that it is only effective if the person is really motivated to change.

Figure 2.

This brings us to the theory of change developed by Harvard professor Dr. John P. Kotter. His research showed that for people to be motivated enough to pursue behavior change, they need to actually first personally see and feel that need for change. The simple act of analyzing and thinking that a behavior change is needed, as is common during leadership trainings, won’t make a person change their habits.

Instead, according to Kotter the sequence is SEE, FEEL, CHANGE and not ANALYZE, THINK, CHANGE – i.e. no person will change their behavior unless they personally feel the need to change.

Dr. John P. Kotter's research states that in order to change, people have to see and feel the need to change their behavior

Figure 3.

This is yet another explanation why leadership development as it has been traditionally managed has been largely ineffective: When we rely on a participant’s rational understanding of the need to change their behavior, then in most cases people will not follow through with the planned behavior change after the training. For a person to change, they really have to WANT to change.

When we rely on a participant’s rational understanding of the need to change their behavior, then in most cases people will not follow through with the planned change after the training. #leadershipdevelopment #rethink Click To Tweet

Taken together, here at Upwardley we believe that all of this underpins why we need to move towards  individual ownership of leadership development. Established models rely on HR and L&D to sponsor and coordinate leadership development initiatives. However, if the aim of leadership development is to achieve lasting personal change, then The Fogg Behavior Model and Kotter’s theory seem to suggest that this will only happen if we put employees in charge of their own leadership development. For example, by letting employees self-select leadership development initiatives we could save ourselves from wasting resources on those who are unwilling to change and we could free up room for those who are willing to put in the hard work.

Leadership development requires personal mastery

Such a willingness to change requires an openness to see the gap between one’s desired state and one’s current state. In their book “Choosing Change”, Susan Goldsworthy and Walter McFarland explain that this willingness to learn and grow requires, amongst other things, an ability to realistically assess one’s own abilities, aptitudes and motives, as well as an ability to recognize and acknowledge one’s own feelings and reactions. In order to succeed, participants in any leadership development program thus need both self-knowledge and self-acceptance.

Robert E.Quinn, in his book “Building the Bridge As You Walk On It”, adds to this that ‘to engage in change, individuals must be willing to courageously leave their world of certainty to a place where there are many risks – a place where they are required to think in a new way.’

Harvard professor Peter Senge describes this capacity for learning and growth as the discipline of personal mastery. Senge identifies three essential elements to achieving such personal mastery:

1. Having a clear personal vision & purpose

According to Senge, the first essential element is to have a clear image of the future that you desire. In the case of leadership development this means the individual needs to have a vivid picture of how their future self will show up as a leader. However, that is not enough. One also needs to really have a sense of purpose, a reason for pursuing one’s vision.

Participants in a leadership development program thus need to have a real sense of why they want to lead. Only when one combines this clarity of vision and purpose, does one gain the direction and passion to propel one forward through a change process towards one’s future.

2. Commitment to the truth

The second essential element for personal mastery is a commitment to the truth. In Senge’s words this requires ‘a relentless willingness to root out the ways we deceive ourselves from seeing what truly is.’ An individual cannot choose to change before they are aware of and fully accept their current reality in all its detail.

This commitment to the truth echoes the importance of self-knowledge and self-acceptance which Susan Goldsworthy and Walter McFarland also identified as key.

An individual cannot choose to change before they are aware of and fully accept their current reality in all its detail. #leadershipdevelopment #rethink Click To Tweet

3. Manage the gap

The third essential element to achieve personal mastery is the ability to both accept and leverage the tension that exists because of the gap between where one wants to be (personal vision) and one’s current reality. Acceptance is key, as this gap often creates emotional tension, when one realizes the effort required to close the gap, often causing feelings of anxiety, sadness, discouragement, hopelessness and worry. Many people cannot cope with this emotional tension and thus, in order to escape it, they abandon their vision, which then at once resolves the tension. Accepting this gap and overcoming the self-defeating thoughts caused by the emotional tension is thus key to an individual’s ability to grow.

Creative tension exists between who you are now and who you want to become

Figure 4. Manage the creative tension between your reality and future vision

But just accepting it is not enough. One actually has to use the gap as a source of energy to want to learn and grow – i.e. one has to turn it into a source of creative tension. This concept of overcoming the emotional tension of the gap between reality and the vision, and instead leveraging it as a source of “creative tension”, resonates with Robert Quin’s earlier mentioned ‘need to courageously leave their world of certainty to a place where they are required to think in a new way.’

So, in summary, a willingness to change is not enough for someone to successfully engage in leadership development. One also needs the personal mastery to really embrace the challenge of their personal change journey from where they are now, to where they want to get to.

In conclusion

Developing leaders is critical to the success of our organizations. However, we need to drastically re-think how we provide training for leaders, because the traditional way of delivering leadership development creates mere momentary strength and fails to achieve the desired lasting behavior change. To do so, we need to start approaching leadership development as a continuous process that goes way beyond knowledge transfer and provide the structure and tools to support and enable employees to adopt the desired new behaviors as habits. Moreover, we should consider how we can provide employees more individual ownership over their leadership development to ensure we spend our resources on those who have the personal mastery to achieve the necessary lasting personal change to become exceptional leaders.

We need to drastically rethink how we provide training for leaders, because the traditional approach creates mere momentary strength and fails to achieve the desired lasting behavior change. #leadershipdevelopment #rethink Click To Tweet

About the author

Brenda is the Founder and CEO of Upwardley, the new San Francisco based start-up that harnesses the latest people science & technology to re-imagine leadership development for the modern enterprise by making it more affordable, personalized, on-demand and habit-building.

Brenda is also the author of the book “The Leadership Workout”, which provides you with a 31-day framework to purposefully direct and regularly review your leadership through daily reflection and practice, to help you refine and further develop your leadership. One facet at a time, one day at a time

About the author

Brenda van Camp Brenda van Camp
Founder & CEO, Upwardley

Brenda is the Founder and CEO of Upwardley, the new San Francisco based start-up that harnesses the latest people science & technology to re-imagine leadership development for the modern enterprise by making it more affordable, personalized, on-demand and habit-building.

Brenda is also the author of the book “The Leadership Workout”, which provides you with a 31-day framework to purposefully direct and regularly review your leadership through daily reflection and practice, to help you refine and further develop your leadership. One facet at a time, one day at a time

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