Intangibles make great leaders

Leadership development must go beyond logical management skills.

Becoming an effective corporate leader requires more than industry knowledge, technical savvy and clinical skills. Even the very best specialists and individual performers won’t necessarily possess the important strategic relationship and interpersonal skills that make great leaders. Few would argue with this. The question is where and how do managers develop these important leadership skills?

The bottom line in learning to be an effective leader is that traditional information or competency training must be enhanced by experiential and personal development processes that nurture the soft skills, or intangibles, necessary to lead organizations.

This begins with the recognition that developing leaders often need to change how they behave, and such changes must be learned and embraced — not always an easy task. For example, the leadership development process can often require an acceptance of new attitudes and styles of communication.
To become a successful leader, self-evaluation is critical. To “step out of yourself” on occasion and view one’s own behaviour with objectivity. This enables the leader-in-training to make powerful and personal choices about how she relates to the people to whom she provides leadership.

Leader relationships are more than just work relationships. A good leader can provide beneficial tools to her staff that transcend the workplace and can be used in home and social scenarios. A leader who inspires confidence in the members of a team can expect that confidence to have positive side effects outside the workplace.

The best leaders are aware of the world around them — cultural shifts in communication and interaction norms and so on, because larger cultural and social trends demand transformations at many levels for individuals, teams and whole organizations.

Multi-level transformations demand more of modern leaders than traditional learning of knowledge and skills. Modern organizational leadership often requires people to change their image of their organizations and their roles within them.
The difference between management and leadership
In leadership development terms, organizations are rediscovering the distinctions between management and leadership. The fundamental differences between the two are outlined below:
Management maintains a focus on:
•planning and organizing;
•controlling and problem-solving; and
•attention to outcomes.
Leadership maintains a focus on:
•creating a vision and developing strategies;
•engaging, motivating and inspiring people;
•building trust and having courage; and
•creating action.

Many private- and public-sector organizations challenged with developing management and leadership skills err by over-emphasizing management skills to the detriment of developing intangible skills. This is, in a sense, “the road most traveled” because management skills are far easier to achieve since they’re based on logical and rational processes. In short, traditional management development offers a seductive and easy short-term success, but it is not achieving leadership development.

Leadership development requires real investments in more difficult and less tangible areas such as relationship skills, personal development and an unending mental flexibility to tolerate emotional human complexities. Leadership skills development is “the road less traveled” for a myriad of reasons, not least being a central realization that it is a never-ending journey with no tidy right or wrong “answers.”

Awareness of the need for a balance of both technical and interpersonal skills in leadership is growing and gaining influence in the corporate world, but the need for a consistent balance between the two remains a difficult challenge for many businesses.

Obstacles to overcome
Human resources practitioners involved in designing and facilitating leadership development programs often notice that the attitudes of many would-be-leaders are obstacles to their own development. Such obstacles must be overcome if the “leader-in-training” is to graduate to successful leadership status. The most common obstacles include:
•learned helplessness and the belief “I can’t make a difference” or “they won’t let me make a difference;”
•a need to heal the past and relieve resentment for leaders’ previously inhumane and unsuccessful actions;
•paralyzing fear of retribution based on unchallenged organizational mythology; and
•low self-awareness, emotional maturity and responsibility — these are often demonstrated in chronically poor social skills and relationship skills and the habitual blaming of others for team and organizational ills.

This list is by no means all inclusive, but does suggest some of the common barriers that can be overcome once a better understanding of human behaviour and interpersonal skills is developed.

The issues of self-image, learned helplessness, fear and emotional responsibility are part of human nature and require suitable human nature-oriented developmental solutions. Effective self-evaluation can be the strongest tool to overcoming these obstacles and leading to the important process of reinventing oneself as a leader.

In other words, knowing leadership theory and having leadership skills does not make a leader. Candidates often satisfy perfectly rational leadership competencies but still fail to lead. This is why traditional information-based training often fails to deliver behavioural change with regard to leadership.

Learning to be a leader
An excellent example of a process requiring experiential learning is the action of blindly touching your nose. Reach out in front of your face with one hand, close your eyes and gently touch your nose. Now think about how you learned to complete this simple task. The action is simple and you probably learned it from many repeated events over time. The micro-muscle movements and spatial awareness are, however, very complex and you now unconsciously process vast amounts of information to complete this simple task.

Imagine how hard it would be to learn to blindly touch your nose from information rather than from experience. This process of blindly touching your nose, like leadership, is best learned experientially.

A 1997 UC Berkeley study on “Management and Behaviour,” found leaders attributed fully one-third of their leadership learning and development experiences to anti-models, or “bad examples” — knowing or experiencing poor leaders and vowing to never be like them.

Since the best leaders so often attribute such a large portion of their skills to having “learned the hard way by being around poor leaders in the past,” it makes sense that most leaders-in-training today could learn from that knowledge. While dealing with the “boss from hell,” aspiring leaders should consider what they are learning and how they will perform differently when they are in a leadership situation.
While learning from bad examples can be beneficial, it is important to remember not to focus exclusively on the negative. The “leadership tool kit” will be fully stocked with strong tactics, principles, practices and learned skills only if close attention is paid to leaders who have set powerful positive examples of effectiveness.
In his book, Learning to Lead (1992 Jossey-Bass), leadership expert and author J. Conger defines the four approaches to leadership development as:
•conceptual theories;
•micro skill-building;
•personal growth and self-awareness; and
•feedback and learning about oneself from others.

All of these concepts involve thought beyond thinking based solely on logic. Leadership development is not an exclusively rational process — far from it.

No matter how much one craves simple, quantifiable solutions to satisfy the tail-end of the economic rationalist management fad — simple, rational solutions rarely exist. Knowledge of complex human behaviour and “extra-rational” reasoning is the essential ingredient to being a successful leader.

As growing leaders invest in developing their leadership skills, the most valuable concept to remember is that what they are learning is not the same as teaching people information, knowledge or technical skills. Learning leadership is far more complex, personal and extra-rational.

Trish Jacobson is vice-president of human resources at Pomona, Calif.-based non-profit HMO, Inter Valley Health Plan. Her experience as an HR professional and consultant includes providing HR services within the government and public service sector, managed health care, high tech, retail and hospitality industries and as a corporate HR consultant.

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