Are the company’s leadership development efforts meeting expectations? Are they producing real and sustainable results for the company? What if these efforts are wasting time and money?
We recently worked with a major corporate CEO who embodied the frustration expressed by many other senior leaders about their many failed attempts to develop leadership teams. Consultants had worked with him to identify organizational challenges and the leadership capacities needed to cope with them. His business environment was becoming more complex and unpredictable, thereby requiring a cultural transformation that would encourage learning and innovation. To lead and support this transformation, he concluded his future leaders needed to be more open-minded, more accepting of diversity, more creative, and more able to think in complex ways. For several years he had supported a series of leadership development efforts that he hoped would produce leaders with these desired capabilities. He had selected high potential executives identified from past job performance or gut feeling and sent them for leadership development individually or in very small groups to the most prestigious business schools across the country. When he asked his human resources team to produce a report analyzing the costs and benefits of these efforts, the net result was he could not find evidence these leadership programs had any impact on creating a culture that supported learning, creativity, and innovation, or on executive mindsets and behavior. This inability to quantify a genuine return on investment from traditional leadership development efforts seems to be a common experience among many corporate leaders. Although their employees often reported the programs were engaging and enjoyable, what they learned was difficult to practice because it did nothing to transform the culture they returned to in their workplace.
New Eyes –Shifting from Nurture to Nature
Underlying all leadership development efforts is the nurture-nature debate. Can leadership be put into executives or is it naturally in them? Most leadership development efforts tend to put more weight on the nurture side of this debate believing leadership can in large part be taught. Our CEO’s experience would suggest that isn’t true, and calls into question how the relative weight given to nurture over nature impacts most leadership development efforts. Is it time to look at leadership development from a different perspective? As the French novelist Marcel Proust once wrote, “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
Our CEO needed employees who were both informed about the emerging landscape, and capable of seeing this landscape individually and collectively with new eyes. Being informed is about knowing answers to old questions; having new eyes is about asking new questions. What if “new eyes” see the essence of leadership as a collective, not an individual, phenomenon naturally emerging from complexity that defies intellectual understanding and dooms planned efforts to identify future leaders and/or develop them? This would shift the nurture-nature balance significantly toward nature. Therefore, at its essence, leadership would be a mystery to be embraced, and attempts to unravel the mystery by just informing individual executives about leadership would be folly. With these new eyes, attention shifts from putting leadership into executives to creating the conditions that support the natural expression of their leadership potential. These conditions occur in conversations that create the conditions for accomplishing leadership work.
Leadership Work and Complex Transformative Conversations
The purpose of leadership development is to accomplish the leadership work necessary to sustain the growth and viability of the organization. It is evident from our observations and experiences that businesses struggle with their leadership work not because they lack leaders or need to develop them individually, but because they are not supporting organizational cultures that encourage and enable natural leaders to emerge. Natural leadership emerges from supportive cultures, and cultures are brought to life in the conversations they invite. Some conversations focus on resolving problems or coordinating activities with no intent to transform the underlying culture. These conversations, representing the typical business meeting, we call Simple Transactive Conversations or STCs. In contrast, conversations that are focused on transforming the underlying culture we call Complex Transformative Conversations or CTCs.
In either case, these conversations can range in scale from one-on-one hallway encounters, to small group meetings, to auditorium presentations. Scale is not the differentiating issue, complexity is. STCs provide a forum for the exchange of information to coordinate tasks or resolve problems necessary for preservation of the status quo. They accept current complexity and attempt to simplify that reality to support organizational action. The management work that is performed in STCs is absolutely necessary to facilitate business operations. In contrast, CTCs are designed to increase complexity, not simplify it. These conversations seek transformation, innovation, and learning to challenge the existing order of things. Genuine leadership work is performed in CTCs, or perhaps more provocatively by CTCs. However, organizations are not prone to, nor are they very effective at, convening CTCs, because they require significant investments in time relative to STCs as they focus on expanding dialogue as opposed to producing short-term convergence on solutions or takeaways. Ray Bradbury prophetically described this challenge in his 1953 classic book Fahrenheit 451 when he described a day when a society could be controlled by information. To control people, their leadership spirit had to be dampened or killed. His formula for killing this spirit was to keep individuals busy processing information and to eliminate front porches on their homes; in other words, trap people in STCs and thereby block their access to CTCs.
New Eyes on Leadership Development
We believe it is time to approach leadership development efforts with new eyes. The emerging world is complex and unpredictable. To achieve sustainable growth, organizations are challenged to transform their cultures to support necessary learning, creativity, and innovation, in addition to their routine operations. And, they must accomplish this change with the efficient use of resources despite the fact that learning, creativity, and innovation by their nature are not efficient processes.
This transformation challenge is the essence of leadership work and requires a culture that supports the conditions for the natural emergence of leaders in response to the continuously changing world they face. Significant and sustainable transformation presents a paradox – the desired organizational culture is necessary to allow the emergence of its own creation. CTCs are microcosms of this desired culture that have the potential to resolve this paradox. They support the notion that culture and leadership are two sides of the same coin and are interdependent.
The Leadership Challenge
Through our conversations with leaders from numerous organizations there is general agreement the link between their current leadership development efforts and organizational outcomes falls short of their expectations. Although they often believe their own leadership is natural, they have not considered acting on this belief when they look to the leadership development of others. Why? To do so would require questioning long held assumptions deeply embedded in management orthodoxy. Some of these assumptions are readily apparent, others perhaps not. They embody such beliefs as:
There are many other assumptions that are challenged by the “new eyes,” but the last belief in this list, change is for others, might pose the most daunting challenge for senior leaders in positions to change approaches to leadership development. We believe that this detached, scientific, objectively neutral view of the dynamics of leadership development and organizational transformation underlies all of these assumptions and it is the most dominant cause of the poor return on leadership development efforts. Why is this so? The poet David Whyte writes in his book Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity:
“The core act of leadership must be the act of making conversations real. The conversations of captaincy and leadership are the conversations that forge real relationships between the inside of a human being and their outer world, or between an organization and the world it serves.”
CTCs are this core act of leadership. These conversations invite those who approve them and convene them, in addition to those who participate in them, to be present together with their own vulnerabilities and to face personal change. Facing the challenge of personal transformation, of being vulnerable to a personal mirror reflecting their own leadership, is naturally disturbing for senior leaders, consultants, or teachers who see the need to maintain emotional distance in their traditional roles. Perhaps the pressing needs for change imposed by the marketplace and frustrations with past individual-focused leadership development efforts might be the necessary incentives to accept this dissonance and disturbance as an invitation to experiment with CTCs as an approach to leadership development. But are they sufficient?
More fully embracing the nature view of leadership and the need for CTCs is not just an intellectual exercise. It is personal; it is emotional and calls for an act of courage. The ideas presented in this article should be viewed as an invitation to let go and be vulnerable to all life has to offer. Therefore, it is appropriate we end in a more personal voice; a voice that invites the reader to be more fully present in the inquiry we have opened and the challenges we posed in awakening new eyes. This is personal; it is about who we chose to be individually and collectively. In Bradbury’s language, we each face the challenge of stepping out of our own busyness and onto the front porch.
In our lives, what if we are unconsciously choosing to stay busy to avoid facing our own reality? In our conversations at work, at home, in classrooms, churches, and public forums, what story are we telling ourselves and each other to reinforce our comfortable illusion of security? And without CTCs, where do we begin to craft a new collective story of possibility in which we each be can be fully present in our reality? David Whyte talks about conversations with reality like these and the ultimate challenge of finding the conversation we were meant to be in. This is not easy because it requires facing what he calls courageous conversations. He defines them as the conversations that we don’t want to have. Courageous conversations hold in them the possibility of outcomes we do not want because they make us uncomfortable or put us at risk, or they might force us to face a reality we have been avoiding.
In this light, CTCs are in many ways courageous conversations. It takes courage to expose long held beliefs to the light of reality and risk changing those beliefs. Courage to act is not rooted in analytical spread sheets or evoked in PowerPoint presentations that reinforce observer neutrality. There must be a preliminary conversation we can invite as a first step that begins to open our minds and inspire our courage. In his poem Start Close In, Whyte tells us to “start close in, don’t take the second step or the third, start with the first thing close in, the step you don’t want to take.” Any approach to leadership development or doing leadership work requires courage to be vulnerable and open to change. Courage is the heart of leadership and being courageous begins with a first step, a step close in. Perhaps, that first step in accomplishing leadership work is to convene a CTC around the question in your organization – what is our courageous conversation, the one we do not want to have? Or more personally, what is my courageous conversation, the conversation I don’t want to have?
Robert H. Lengel, Ph.D., is the Associate Dean for Executive Education and the Director of the Center for Professional Excellence at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Dr. Lengel consults with oil & gas companies, health care providers. government agencies, the military, aerospace companies, and financial institutions. email@example.com.
Gary D. Larsen, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Executive MBA program and provides organizational leadership consultation through the Center for Professional Excellence at the University of Texas at San Antonio. firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: Both Robert Lengel & Gary Larson have left UTSA and now are founders at consulting group LeaderWork.
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