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CLO Q&A: Leaders Need to Be Psychiatrists

Leadership development should focus on helping leaders understand what drives the people they're leading, says Mike Kennedy of the NBA.

Michael Kennedy is associate vice president of talent and learning for the National Basketball Association where he’s worked for the last five years. A veteran of Tiffany & Co. and KPMG, Kennedy sat down with Chief Learning Officer at the CLO Breakfast Club event in New York in May to share his perspective on the role of the learning executive, his career path and the keys to effective leadership.

In the excerpt below, Kennedy talks about his background as a mental health counselor and what that means for teaching today’s leaders. This transcript has been edited for space and clarity. For more on Kennedy’s talk along with highlights from the full event series, visit the CLO Breakfast Club library.

Chief Learning Officer: You said something interesting when we talked a couple of weeks ago as we were preparing for this discussion. You said much of leadership development is helping leaders become mini-psychiatrists.

Kennedy: Yes. And it really was as I turned my attention more over the course of my time in learning and became more focused on leadership development. That started to emerge as a theme. There are 30,000 books on the market on leadership, quite literally, in English. Obviously, there’s no one solution. Part of there being no one solution is the fact that leadership is implicitly in the art of attaining consent, right? You can follow whatever set of behaviors constitute good leadership in your mind but at the end of the day, if you turn around and no one’s actually following then what you’re doing isn’t effective leadership.

To that extent, part of being a great leader is understanding the dynamics, understanding the motivations, understanding each individual person that you’re leading on some level. It is the art of turning leaders into mini-psychiatrists to the extent that it’s about diagnosis, not in the clinical sense, but really understanding what’s driving the people that you’re leading.

CLO: How prepared are leaders to think of themselves in that way?

Kennedy: In my experience, not very. We know that one of the bigger challenges in learning isn’t getting people to learn but getting them to unlearn right before they learn. Leadership is probably the area of practice where that is most the case, much like parenting. We think we know what it means to be a good parent based on our own experience. Similarly, we come into leadership often with very little preparation [and] unfortunately with a set idea of what great leadership looks like and try to embody those practices. But then somewhere along the line those things whether or not they’re effective just become very set for you. Part of the journey is, again, helping people unlearn and look at whether they’re using the practices that work best for the people that they’re leading.

No I don’t think people are as prepared. It’s startling to me as I hear friends of mine from college who are now in executive roles and leading teams – leading much bigger teams than they’ve ever led in the past – to describe how hard it is to lead effectively and how little preparation they’ve had for it even in very big, reputable companies. [It’s a] lack of preparation – the sink or swim mentality. If you’ve ever seen anyone who learned to swim by being thrown in a pool, they don’t do it very well, right?

Something that we have not been attentive enough to across the span of the corporate world is helping people understand that leadership isn’t about following a formula. It’s about being thoughtful about the people that you’re leading and what they’re going to need from you as a leader.

CLO: Thinking about that from the counseling perspective, is there a practice that you learn in counseling that would make leadership immediately better from a development standpoint?

Kennedy: It sounds very reductive but yes, absolutely. That practice is to listen. One of the things that we perhaps can do a better job preparing people for and making that transition is, to quote Marshall Goldsmith’s book title, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” When people are being moved into leadership roles, they’re accustomed to performing, to being high achievers, to feeding their egos to a certain extent. Very often they haven’t attained that through their listening skills, their building of empathy. Fundamental to the practice of leadership is being willing to listen, being willing to engage, being willing to attend fully in any conversation with someone that you lead, minimizing distractions and being really in the moment and hearing them and working to understand. Pulling back on the direction a little bit so that you can listen better.

CLO: In your experience, is that trainable? Is that something that people either have or they don’t have?

Kennedy: It is trainable to a certain extent. Some people are very much wired for it. Others are less wired for it. To a great extent those who are not as wired for it can attain the skill through some training and then a lot of practice and a lot of attention to it. It doesn’t mean everyone’s necessarily going to have the appetite for it which is one of the reasons that we have to do a little bit better with getting away from the idea that the way you succeed in corporate life is measured by the size of your team.

If you’re not wired for leadership, yes, you can learn the skills but you also have to have the commitment to do so. If you don’t have that sense of commitment to it then take the off-ramp. Find a way to continue building your career as an individual contributor.

For more on Kennedy’s talk along with highlights from the full event series, visit the CLO Breakfast Club library.

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