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How to Eliminate Leadership Development Roadblocks

According to a 2011 study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., 76 percent of chief executives say it is important to grow their leaders. The problem is that only 7 percent think their organizations are doing it successfully.

As it turns out, CEOs aren’t the only leaders with this worry. It also hits close to home for learning executives — those with added accountability for development. And although learning organizations typically track hours and learning dollars per leader, it doesn’t always mean they’re actually improving.

This isn’t an unfounded fear. According to a 2010 report by Bill Gentry at the Center for Creative Leadership, half of leaders, or one out of every two managers at every level, are ineffective.

This isn’t to say leaders are unable to get better. Let’s review two practices that might be limiting the impact of leadership development efforts, along with few suggestions to increase the effectiveness of leaders:

Stop Overcomplicating Leadership

Many companies are breathing their own leadership exhaust. They cram programs full of “flavor of the month” approaches, and soon the bells and whistles overwhelm the value. Whether it’s a 10-page competency model, a complicated year-long program or assigned reading from the nearly 100,000 leadership books available on Amazon.com, organizations are overwhelming leaders. Eventually, the leaders will start to view leadership as hopelessly complex.

In practice, the essence of leadership is to master two behaviors. In 1945, researchers at Ohio State University studied the performance of International Harvester foremen. Effective leaders, the study found, showed consideration — treated employees like human beings — and initiated structure to be the two most important leadership behaviors.

These behaviors possess an inherent tension. Leaders can either make people happy or drive them to perform. The few who can do both are hard to come by; they deliver guaranteed prosperity to their company in the form of achievement, happiness, health and wealth.

Learning executives might consider anchoring development offerings around these two behaviors through two sequential steps. First, make sure leaders understand their current behaviors through assessments and feedback. Then, use development programs to round out their skills in both the people and results side.

Stop Encouraging ‘Delusional Development’

In modern organizations, leaders are often encouraged — or required — to set yearly development goals. They attend classes, read books and get mentors. But secretly, they hope they’ll improve mostly through sheer willpower. Then, the following year, they dust off their plan only to feel shocked and discouraged that they’ve improved just slightly or not at all.

When leaders create development plans but don’t see improvement, it’s not usually because they can’t get better. It’s because they’re guilty of “delusional development”: the futile hope that they’ll improve just by wanting to get better and knowing enough to be dangerous.

This problem is compounded by the approach most companies take with development planning by allowing too many goals and rarely reviewing progress.

Leadership must be built through relentless focus and daily practice. To help leaders truly improve, learning organizations must adapt development planning to focus on one behavior at a time, with weekly or daily progress reviews.

In the end, learning to be a leader is no different than learning to play the violin. One must learn the concepts — reading music — and behaviors — using the bow — then practice over and over to turn that knowledge into a beautiful piece of music. Likewise, leaders should learn the concepts and behaviors, then relentlessly practice.

Tasha Eurich is the author of “Bankable Leadership: Happy People, Bottom-Line Results and the Power to Deliver Both.” She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.