During the recent leadership week celebrations I was fortunate enough to attend the Leadership New Zealand ‘Dinner with a Difference’ event. At the end of the event a young person who had been part of the AUT shadow a leader activity that day, sat beside me and asked me a lot of questions on leadership.
One of their questions was ‘Can anyone be a leader?’ . I subscribe to the view that great leaders aren’t born, they are mostly made and that anyone can lead if they chose to. So I told them that I believed that you had to want to lead to access the leadership talent that you might have. Only a few days later I found myself in a discussion, with a very experienced leadership trainer, about the difficulty of getting adult participants of leadership development programmes to actually take action on the tools and resources that they are given. It got me reflecting on the conversation with that young potential leader and whether I was right or not.
The experienced trainer was facing the frustration of seeing people in leadership roles, do nothing to engage differently after leadership training. They were wondering whether the problem was that the training was seen as an entitlement as opposed to a need i.e it was something that you were sent on because you were in a management position already and was a badge of status. They felt that the longer that an individual had been in a management role then the less drive that individual has to improve their leadership skills as they would see themselves as ‘already there’. They speculated that many managers would say ‘Why do I need to do this as I’ve already got the role that it is preparing me for?’
It did make me wonder whether our approach to leadership development is all wrong in most organisations. We tend to send people on leadership training once they have a management role or some role of influence (if a technical leader for example). At Altris we put a lot of time into the WIIFM (whats in it for me) as we have found that leaders who have a clear personal and motivating WIIFM are more likely to do something with the training that we are about to run. If someone has the role then the WIIFM tends to be based on whether they see that they are doing well enough in the role or not. If you’ve failed spectacularly or had some definite feedback that you have accepted (acceptance is vital; denial is not a driver for change) then that may form a WIIFM strong enough for personal change. But many of the people we see have had little indication that they ‘could do better’ (to paraphrase my school report card), indeed some of them seem to equate their intelligence with their capability as a leader and don’t see that they have much to change.
What would happen if we didn’t train people once they are in the job? What would happen if we got every new graduate at the time they joined the organisation and asked if they wanted to be a leader? If they were like the young person I chatted with they would have done some theory at university and they might want to learn more or get some practical perspectives. The university might have done their job and lit the spark of interest in real leadership and they might want to lead for the right reasons too i.e not just power, status, money, control, but a desire to help others to perform for our collective good.
But what if we then only selected people for leadership roles once they had been seen to clearly apply our leadership training when they had no positional power to do so? i.e we promoted those that took the skills we gave them and actually did something with them. Not the best at technical skills; the best engineer, accountant, lawyer etc but the ones that applied the leadership practices that they had been taught. What if that applied all the way up the organisation? i.e you only achieved the next level by applying next level leadership. What if our organisations valued leadership and created a real WIIFM for those that attend leadership training?
Sounds expensive training everyone doesn’t it? More expensive than training that doesn’t deliver a change? I wonder?