You probably appreciate, by now, the need to invest in leadership development. What you may not realize is the critical importance of investing in the right program. As we work with companies, we find convincing them of the latter more difficult than ever.
With the exception of diet books and Jennifer Lopez, I challenge you to find a topic as perennially covered as leadership development. Each week brings a glut of new books on the subject. And each claims a new—and vastly superior—take on molding what one has to assume the author believes are the malformed blobs currently masquerading as leaders behind their unearned titles. Navigating this sea of competing approaches can be daunting. Couple that with our natural proclivity to chase shiny new things, and you have a potentially expensive habit that offers little in the way of concrete reward.
How Leadership Development is Like Dieting
A self-help craze started with dieting and exercise back in the 1980s and kept right on going into countless other subjects. We increasingly erased the line between our personal and professional self-development. Moreover, the comparison between leadership programs and diet and exercise programs is actually rather informative; they share a number of parallels, and many of the caveats to emerge out of the tsunami of health and lifestyle programs prove equally instructive in leader development.
Time and research have demonstrated that certain diets work better for some than others. Differences in our body make-up, genetics, effort level and natural predilections can make one program work and another fail miserably. Further, given the immense complexity of the human body, no diet program can continue to work indefinitely—at least not without making adjustments to accommodate for the body’s astounding ability to adapt and maintain baseline homogeneity. And lastly, no diet or exercise program can succeed on willpower alone: if the program doesn’t help you to actually change your lifestyle, it will ultimately fail to produce lasting results.
More often than not, a failed diet didn’t prompt us to reflect significantly and honestly on the causes for failure. Instead, what did we do? We launched into another diet program and started the cycle all over again. In time, with insight, it was possible to observe that we were addicted to the cycle itself, irrespective of any real results! You churned through programs, always hoping the next one would be “the one” and felt ever more frustrated at your inability to find a program that worked with, what you perceived to be, your unique metabolism to deliver meaningful results.
Chasing Trends… in Circles
Any of this sound familiar? Turns out, this pattern of chasing the next big trend is equally alive and well in the leadership development space. It’s for largely the same reasons: when any program relies uniquely on our self-discipline for effect, fails to create true behavioral change and is untethered to an organizational support structure, that program is doomed.
Further, an academic understanding of leadership rarely translates into the practice of good leadership, anymore than reading an excellent exercise manual transforms your body into that of an underwear model. Leadership—like diet and exercise—is an active process: it’s a verb, not a noun! Leading exists only in the actual act of leading. To make an impact, therefore, a leadership program must address core behavior change. Additionally, it needs sufficient support in the organization to become integral to the company culture. Otherwise, leader development is about as effectual as a life jacket on an airplane.
How to Invest in Change That Sticks
Clearly, we need the right kind of leadership development as surely as we need to commit to the right lifestyle choices for our health and wellness. Refusing to invest in the right type of leaders for your organization is akin to trusting your health to your appetites. Leaders can and should be developed.
Just as, when we were children, our parents insisted we explore the green portion of our plate and not just the French fries, committing to the right leadership development program can permanently shape the organizational attitude toward leading. Further, it can (and should!) correspond with role definition and clarity at each leadership level. It should outline the developmental path forward for younger employees, while supporting existing leaders and generating a common set of expectations that allow for better evaluation and reward of leaders.
When leaders show up and lead, clear and overwhelming evidence shows increases in efficiency and productivity; lower attrition rates; speedier development of high potentials; and an improved capacity to handle change. This applies to the increasingly significant departure of Baby Boomers from our workforce.
So, make the investment in leadership development; just ensure three things. Make your program commitment organizationally wide in scope. Ensure that it targets key behavioral changes necessary for success at each leadership level. And finally, tie your HR metrics to these key behaviors for evaluation and reward. Doing this will ensure the success of your effort and minimize the chances that a year later, you find yourself back on the scale wondering why long hours of hard work and plates of Brussels sprouts netted you zero results.