Foundation of Leadership Development

Leadership Development = Learn + Do + Reflect

You need all three elements—learn, do, and reflect—to fully develop leaders. Let’s take a look at each one.

LEARN: Building Leadership Competencies

Here’s the main point of LEARN: Leaders do many things—they inform, they persuade, they decide, they negotiate, they arbitrate, and so on. Because effective leadership requires an array of skills, a vital element of any leader development program is strengthening essential competencies. Fifteen core leadership competencies are listed below. This list didn’t emerge out of nowhere—these fifteen are key skills distilled from highly regarded scholarship on leadership effectiveness. But don’t get hung up on the order of the skills, because there isn’t a meaningful rank order. Leadership environments vary dramatically—a small business owner needs some skills that a university president doesn’t need, and vice versa. Use the core competency list as a start point to assess which skills are most meaningful for your situation, which competencies you need to build, and which attributes might help you most in achieving your leadership objectives.

Fifteen Core Leadership Competencies:

  1. Decision making
  2. Motivating others
  3. Critical thinking
  4. Effective communication
  5. Building consensus
  6. Conflict resolution
  7. Emotional resilience
  8. Stress management
  9. Leading change
  10. Negotiation
  11. Time management
  12. Exercising influence
  13. Building teams
  14. Developing followers
  15. Rebounding from failure

DO = Deploying the Competencies

In organizational environments, the DO part of LEARN↔DO↔REFLECT is already happening. It’s just not integrated in an intentional way, resulting in the accidental leadership development that pervades most organizations.

Most of the time, leadership development happens through a combination of on-the-job training and informal mentoring. This unintentional leadership development gives rise to a three-way distribution of leader performance: (a) leaders who are coming up short, (b) leaders who are doing fine, but not excelling, and (c) leaders who are thriving. Two problems are common in companies without intentional leader development programs:

Situation One: Too many promising new leaders are underperforming. Many valuable employees experience great difficulty when they move into a leadership role. This increases stress at a time of already heightened anxiety, which often results in underperformance at the very time new leaders are trying to establish their legitimacy. An intentional program of leadership development reduces some of the stress that new leaders face, which improves performance and helps leaders capitalize on the burst of enthusiasm and high expectations they almost always have when starting a new roles.

Situation Two: There’s a widespread feeling that leaders across the organization aren’t living up to their potential. Many organizations want to improve the leadership performance of a large group of people. This is comprehensive leader development, and it’s illustrated by the graphic on the right. A comprehensive and intentional program of leadership development will take your performance bell curve—substandard, average, excellent—and shift the curve on the right. The outcome of integrated leadership development is that substandard leaders become average, average leaders become excellent, and excellent leaders become superlative.

So, to recap: DO is already happening in most organizations. The challenge is to thoughtfully integrate DO with relevant leadership knowledge (LEARN). DO converts learning into action.

REFLECT = Learning from the Outcomes

We’ve now arrived at the part that people love to skip. But omitting REFLECT dramatically slows down leadership development. Most companies have plenty of DO. And many companies spend a great deal of money on LEARN. But LEARN and DO that remain unconnected to REFLECT means that your leaders are failing to ask the most important developmental question of all: Is what I’m doing really working?

If you want to make your leaders better, you have to integrate what actually happened when new leadership skills were deployed. Reflection can include maintaining a journal, receiving structured feedback, getting formal mentoring, and receiving performance coaching. Assessments like 360° feedback, personality measures, and other established social science instruments can also be used to facilitate the reflection process.

Don’t skip REFLECT. Failing to connect reflection to LEARN and DO will result in the silent performance killer that haunts most organizations: the unrealized expression of talent.

All Together: Leadership Development = LEARN + DO + REFLECT

Omitting any single piece of LEARN↔DO↔REFLECT results in slower and shallower individual development. Without learning, people lean on old behaviors and companies get the same old outcomes. Without doing, you have leadership in theory, but not in practice. And without reflecting, people only learn from a sliver their experiences.

Just as skipping any piece of LEARN↔DO↔REFLECT is problematic, so is an excessive focus on any single area. Too much DO results in what you probably have right now: haphazard and accidental leader development that relies on trial and error, on-the-job training, and informal interactions. Too much LEARN results in classes with virtually no impact on organizational performance. And too much REFLECT is the equivalent of a weekend seminar where people get in touch with their inner selves and feel great, but they are the same people—making the same mistakes—on Monday morning.

Leadership Development = LEARN + DO + REFLECT. This is how we help organizations build leaders at On-Demand Leadership.