Executive Coaching, Leadership Development, Organizational/Team Effectiveness.
My partner and I have written about the importance of seeing leadership capacity as something that builds slowly over time. See, for example, this article on optimizing a development plan or this one on the power of implementing short cycles of action and reflection.
Leadership Capacity As A Practice
We define leadership capacity as the ability to lead more effectively during times of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity (VUCA) and rapid change. But awareness doesn't equal change. Leadership capacity builds slowly, over time. It's a practice. You wouldn't expect to go to a workshop on how to be better at a sport or a musical instrument and expect your performance to instantly improve. You'd know that you need to practice this skill regularly.
Somehow, most leadership development programs in organizations don't integrate this understanding. They deliver a workshop on coaching skills, for example, or how to have difficult conversations, and expect that those leaders have now integrated what they were taught. But nothing has happened yet. The participants' brains haven't changed in a way that would allow them to think and then act differently.
In fact, the famous Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve shows that we can forget up to 75% of what we've learned after six days unless we begin applying it right away.
Our brains don't change by taking a course, going to a weekend workshop or reading a book. We can get ideas from any of these, but the process of change is a practice of regular, ongoing cycles of action and reflection. This can be done in only a few minutes a day, but it takes time.
The Keys To Sustainable Development
When I teach coaching I like to say that we all want to change, as long as we don't have to be uncomfortable. But change almost always involves a willingness to feel awkward or vulnerable. Our goal must matter enough that we're willing to be uncomfortable. That is, in order to sustain development, we all need to focus on the values that will be served through this change. And still, it needs to be a sustainable practice.
What do leaders need to do in order to have a sustainable development practice? I find this discussion particularly important toward the end of a coaching engagement, with the intention of building on the growth that has already occurred.
To support this, I often say to leaders: "You know how to run a project. It's what you do for a living. You set goals, develop timelines and track progress. You check in on that project each week, seeing if you're making progress or need to adjust your plans. You wouldn't go a week without checking in. What if you saw your leadership development as a project and applied those same approaches? You already know how to do this."
For some reason, leaders are often surprised by this. They hadn't thought to apply the same intentional process to their own development as they apply to everything else they're doing.
What Does This Practice Look Like?
What does it look like for you as a leader to have a formal practice of leadership development? I think it starts with identifying the one or two key qualities or behaviors that you think will make the most difference, that will have the highest leverage. It might be listening and asking more, and giving advice less. Or being more fully present. Or taking better care of your nervous system throughout the day. Or getting better at perspective-taking, putting yourself in the shoes of others and communicating based on that.
Whatever it is, set that intention first thing in the morning. And then, importantly, at the end of the day, take a couple of minutes to ask yourself how you did and what the impact was. It's important to ask yourself, "Who is reflecting?" Is it the part of you that's kind and compassionate, focusing most of your attention on what went well? Or the severe inner critic, focused on what you should have done better? Only the compassionate inner observer can truly reflect. The inner critic just knows how to beat up.
A wonderful addition to your leadership development plan is a strategy that builds in short 30-second cycles throughout the day. I virtually guarantee that any leader who does this practice will soon be much more effective.
Consider turning your leadership development into a formal project, and then enjoy the results.