Five Powerful Beliefs to Guide Successful Leadership Development

successful leadership development

Successful leadership development is a goal many of us strive for. When you’re responsible for developing leaders in a fast-growing company, you have many questions to answer.

  • How can you develop the confident and skilful leaders your company needs for its continued growth and success?
  • How can you do it in a way that is dynamic and reflects the pace of the industry?
  • How can you turn a ‘box to be ticked’ into an enjoyable experience that forms the foundations of success?

The best way to cultivate the mindset you need is with a set of beliefs to guide you as you design and put in place your leadership development strategy.

Here are five beliefs that have served me well and underpin my approach to leadership development:

1. Leadership is a responsibility

People often confuse leadership with a role or position. But whether you’re the CEO, a Director, or a Manager, your title will not make you a leader. Some of the worst leaders I have ever met have had the grandest job titles. Equally, there is no reason why you can’t be a leader without a specific position or job title.

Leadership is a responsibility. It’s all about making things happen, walking the talk, achieving the objectives and, above all, making a difference. And you need all employees to do that.

Too many companies confine their leadership development efforts to senior individuals. But you can’t afford to leave leadership up to those few individuals at the top of the organisation. Not if your company is going to grow quickly and be successful.

That is not to say senior executives don’t have a part to play. They do. But position simply determines the scope of your leadership influence.  You need every employee to establish a shared vision, help get buy-in and influence direction, and motivate and inspire others.

2. Leadership is contextual

Contrary to popular belief, there is no single definition of what makes a great leader. A brilliant leader in one situation does not necessarily perform well in another. Academic studies have shown this, and my experience bears it out.

Too many training programmes I come across rest on the assumption that one size fits all. They assume the same group of skills or style of leadership is suitable regardless of strategy or organisational culture.

For successful leadership development, companies need to ask themselves, ‘What, precisely, are we developing leaders for?’ The answer will determine the kind of leaders you need.

For example, if the answer is to support an acquisition-led growth strategy, you will need leaders brimming with ideas who can devise winning strategies for new or expanded business units. If the answer is to grow by capturing organic opportunities, you will want leaders who are good at nurturing internal talent.

3. Leadership is about what you do and say

There’s no shortage of theories about leadership. If you do a search on Amazon, you’ll find over 100,000 books on the subject. That would be a very long leadership development programme if you were to try and include all that they contain.

But leadership is not just about what people know. It’s not just about what they think. It’s mostly about what they do and say.

Think about the leaders you admire. What is it that you admire about them? If you’re thinking about someone you’ve worked with, are you thinking about a conversation you had with them? Maybe you’re thinking about how they reacted to bad news or dealt with a crisis. Maybe you’re thinking about the vision they shared and how they wanted you to be part of it. Maybe you’re thinking about some advice or ideas they gave you.

If you’re thinking about someone famous, are you thinking about a speech you heard them make? Maybe you have a favourite quote of theirs, maybe a particular achievement that they were responsible for.

It doesn’t matter which leader you’re thinking of. What you admire about them is their behaviour, their actions. Underneath all that might be plenty of knowledge and critical thinking. But that alone isn’t leadership. Leadership is behaviour, action – what you do and say. Leadership is influence – how what you do and say inspires others to act. And leadership is impact – how the actions of those you influence make a difference.

4. Leadership development needs behaviour change

Since leadership is behaviour, successful leadership development means changing people’s behaviour.

People’s behaviour is largely the result of their personality and character. It’s driven by their beliefs and values. And they will have a myriad of automated responses which they have formed over many years.

The good news is that change – even radical change – is possible. And while it may not be overnight, there are ways to make the change happen quickly and sustainably.

The other good news is that changing behaviour is natural. From an early age, human beings become aware of new behaviours. Maybe their parents or teachers teach them, or they copy another child or sibling. And if the new behaviour works out well for them (it’s fun; Mum’s pleased with them; they get sweets) they’ll try the behaviour again and again, until it becomes a natural part of their repertoire.

Learning new behaviours is no different for a leader in an organisation. It may be a bit more sophisticated, but it’s no more complex.

5. You can’t develop others

One of the most frequent questions I get asked by new managers is, ‘How can I get people to do what I want them to do?’ And the sad fact is you can’t.

People have to develop themselves. And there lies the challenge of leadership development. It’s like all personal development that involves behaviour change. You can’t stop smoking for someone. You can’t do the workout for them. And you can’t develop their career for them. All you can do is help them work out what they need to do and guide and support them as they take action.

Talented employees are happy to take responsibility for their professional development and career. But there is a high risk of losing them if they feel unsupported by their organisation. Effective leadership development needs a partnership between leaders and the organisation. Companies need to empower employees to take ownership of their careers, making sure leadership development takes into account leaders’ career ambitions. And both partners need to engage in career conversations so a connection can be made between the two.

Note: This post is based on and adapted from Grow Your Geeks. A Handbook for Developing Leaders in High-Tech Organisations by Antoinette Oglethorpe.

Your Turn

What powerful beliefs do you have about leadership? How have they guided your leadership development efforts?  Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

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