What it will take to devlop futurefit leaders – Keith Coats

Having the opportunity to participate in several international leadership development programmes, I am concerned with the standard approach to leadership development.

Much of leadership formation is seen primarily as a progamme rather than a process.

The ‘progamme mentality’ drives towards an end result. ‘Complete the programme and you have a leader’ is basically how it goes. Not too dissimilar I might add to a recipe that instructs the user to simply add some water, shake well and presto…you have the finished product.  Most programmes end with some or other certificate just to prove the point.

A consequence of this programme-obsessive approach is a surplus of leadership development programmes yet a dearth of leaders equipped to effectively lead in a volatile, paradoxical and bewilderingly complex world. One of the outcomes of this approach is an understanding of leadership as a qualification and a position, rather than as a lifelong learning process and as something that is essentially about influence and character. This content-driven programme approach has tended to produce a generation of leaders who emerge with confident answers and tragically few questions; leaders more certain than curious; leaders who now ‘know how to lead’ rather than inquiring leaders who realize that they are only at the beginning of the process in what will be a life-long pursuit.

There are three essential areas that those tasked with developing leadership capacity (and savvy leaders themselves) need to explore in the process of developing leadership capacity.

1.WHAT LEADERS NEED TO SEE

Leaders need to work at understanding the big shifts taking place which impact on their context. It has become trite to talk about change and the need for leaders to adapt or die. We also know that change has changed and that shift happens. However leaders have the responsibility to find appropriate frameworks that enable them to make sense of the major shifts taking place, shifts that will invariably impact on both their context and how they lead. In a world of paradox, frameworks are essential. Paradox by definition cannot be resolved they can only be understood. Frameworks that illuminate such understanding are essential tools for the leader. Although some of the shifts taking place might be industry specific these are not the only shifts that I am referring too. It is seemingly obvious that any leader would need to understand and pay close attention to shifts within their particular industry. Obvious perhaps, but amazingly we all know of instances where this wasn’t the case.

Ricardo Semler, in his book Maverick, writes about the need for every company to be paying somebody to be, ‘looking out the window’ Smart leaders aren’t necessarily the ones to be looking out the window but they ensure someone is doing so and they then pay careful attention to what it is that the window-gazer has to report. Contextualizing that information and building adaptive capacity becomes the work of the leader. Making sense of the big shifts, being ahead of the game, anticipating changes and how they impact on their context is work that no leader can afford to ignore. At a practical level this means that leader needs to extract him/herself from the ‘hands-on’ operational trap that seems to ensnare so many in leadership. Ron Heifetz of Harvard refers to this as the need to be on the ‘balcony’. It is from the balcony that leaders are able to detect emerging patterns that may prove to be game-changers.

The significant thing about major transitions is that the rules of the game change. Failure to comprehend the impact of the rules changing can result in a company, an industry or even a country becoming obsolete, irrelevant or cast in the role of playing ‘catch-up’.

2. WHAT LEADERS NEED TO KNOW

In a nutshell the two ‘need to know’ areas for leaders everywhere are: leaders need to know themselves and they need to know others. There have been those for whom this link (that between self-awareness and leadership) has been familiar territory for centuries. In his book, Heroic Leadership Chris Lowney looks at the best practices from a 450 year-old company (The Jesuits) that he was a part of for many years prior to becoming an executive of J.P. Morgan. Lowery offers a refreshing take on leadership in what he describes as the ‘crowded field of leadership gurudom’ in which he emphasizes that you cannot dislocate self-awareness from leadership. To do so is to create a façade that inevitably will be found out. Growth in self-awareness is an invitation to character development. Character development is an implicit part of authentic leadership.

The natural overflow of self-awareness is the curiosity that seeks a genuine understanding of others. A need to know what underpins the behaviour and attitudes of those with whom we share space. An inquiry that seeks first to understand others in order to be understood.

Essentially that is all leaders really need to know. Both invite lifelong learning and take no small amount of courage and persistence. Both come with a ‘warning’: There are no short cuts!

3. WHAT IT IS LEADERS NEED TO BE

Leaders need to be Storytellers.

It will be the stories that will increasingly attract and hold people together. We live our stories and are defined by our stories. We frame our reality through our stories. Leaders will come to appreciate the importance of sharing their own stories and creating the space for others to do the same. In a Connection based economy, it will be the stories and how they are both lived and told that will determine why people should buy your product or service, and why they should work for you.

Understanding the need, importance and role of story is essential for those serious about leadership. It is an area that is increasingly attracting attention when it comes to both the theory and practice of leadership.

As to the place and importance of stories, as the ‘Director of Storytelling’ for TomorrowToday I can believe nothing else!

Developing leadership capacity in yourself and others is non-negotiable. Given the return on investment in this critical area, we might just have to seriously rethink our approach and methodology if we are to produces leaders capable of meeting the demands of tomorrow. We have made the task one of ‘learning about leadership’ rather than learning leadership. We have made it safe, comfortable and predictable. True leadership development entails none of these elements and the sooner we understand this, the better off we will all be.

Maybe a good question to conclude with would be to ask just how well your leadership development process does when it comes in embracing these three essential pillars? They are pillars that significantly contribute towards developing futurefit leaders.

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