I have been working and teaching in the field of leadership for over 15 years. I have read and seen a lot about leadership and the strategies and frameworks that are designed to help people be more effective in senior leadership roles. When I reflect on my own growth as a leader, I can see a step change that has taken place in the last 30 months or so as I moved in to the role of being CEO of the Refinery. My ‘knowing’ and understanding of what good leadership looks like was helpful, but it was living in the role that unlocked the growth I recognize in myself.
In general terms, we place far too much emphasis on knowing and understanding as the mechanisms that unlock human potential. By way of an example, one of the most difficult things we ever learn is speech. It takes around five years for us to master the art of communicating with those around us. We develop this ability in a world that is rich with sounds, sights, and consistent exposure to the speech and language of others. I am confident that then, and even now, very few of us understand much about the fundamentals of language or the mechanisms of speech – and yet we can all talk.
This bias towards the importance of knowing things and the reassurance of understanding how things work is reinforced at a very young age. As children we are put into an industrial batch model of education that hasn’t changed much in 100 years. It is a system that owes its design to the necessities of providing education to hundreds and thousands of children. It is not designed with development in mind. The emphasis of learning is on memorizing information and understanding the cause and effect of how things work. The advantage of this is that it is relatively easy to test and it gives us a way of sorting out those children who are good at this from the rest. These children then get the chance to continue with their pursuit of knowledge at other schools and universities, where after a number more years – the theory is – they emerge best placed to be the doctors, engineers, architects and captains of industry for the future.
The challenge is that the things that make the best professionals and captains of industry – problem solving, creativity, influencing, collaboration, leadership etc. – are not best developed in a classroom. We may manage to break down these essential attributes into reassuring chunks of concepts and frameworks that can be learnt and understood, but these higher order capabilities are best developed through practice out in the real world. Think about a time when you last made a step change in performance. For most of us this happens when we change our role – we get promotion or we are given new responsibilities – this change often comes with a significant stretch. We are required to operate above and beyond anything we have done in the past. We are thrown in the deep end and we rise to the challenge. This is growth.
Growth is essentially performatory and not cognitive
We may or may not be able to describe exactly what we did to find this higher level of performance within ourselves – likely not. The most important mechanism for growth at play here is that we chose or were pushed outside of our comfort zones, and then we trusted ourselves to rise to the challenge. Support or inspiration may have come in the form of someone who believed in us and gave us the opportunity – they may have seen something in us that we didn’t quite yet see in ourselves.
We continue to emphasize training and development in the workplace in a way that focuses on the understanding of concepts and frameworks, with the application of skills bolted on as an afterthought. My concern here is that this ignores the fact that growth is essentially performatory and not cognitive. Understanding what to do can be helpful in making better choices about what we try, but we only develop additional capacity by reaching and doing something new. Growth is more than understanding what to do – as in the example above, it only happens when you actually do it.
If we want to truly see the workplace not just as a great place to work but as a great place to grow, we need to rethink our approach to training and development. We know that for children, growth is enabled by curiosity, exploration and play – this is how we are hard-wired to develop. Children will naturally take risks without fear of failure or being overly concerned about the judgement of others. If we want to grow leaders in our organizations that are able to tackle the growing complexity and demands of a rapidly changing world, we need to shift to a model that better reflects how we are designed to develop.
We only develop additional capacity by reaching and doing something new
In the future this will almost certainly involve different kinds of organizations where peoples’ roles are configured around growth aspirations rather than job descriptions. It is possible to imagine organizations where roles can be customized to take account of what we are good at, what we are passionate about getting better at, as well as what the needs of the organization might be. Until this becomes more the norm, we need to shift our approach to corporate development – especially development that is focused on higher order skills like leadership.
There is a need to re-think and design development experiences, inside or outside the workplace, that push people out of their comfort zones. Ideally these experiences can be created in the workplace through role enhancements, job rotations, or special projects and are supported by appropriate coaching or mentorship. There is also a place for finding opportunities in less familiar environments outside the workplace, to enhance the development of employees (such as secondments, work placements and volunteer work).
Structured training and development still has a role to play in organizations, but the emphasis should be on providing experiences that aim to inspire rather than inform; are social rather than solitary; and most importantly, focus on practice rather than concepts. Whenever we are assessing the likely impact of any development activity, we should ask ourselves how bold, raw and real will this feel to the target participants – will it take them sufficiently out of their comfort zones? – and above all we should not forget that knowing is not growing.