Leadership Development: The Fifth Way

Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash

In this article you will learn the four generally recognized paths to leadership development and discover a fifth approach. The latter was fashioned initially during a conversation with my client Eric when we were five months into our trusted advisory relationship.

A trusted advisory collaboration can be a highly rewarding experience. Typically it includes elements of executive coaching to increase leadership impact, focused consulting on business and organizational opportunities, acting as a sounding board on a whole range of professional and personal topics, and the employment of a broad range of modalities designed to boost self-awareness, expand the range of options and drive efficacious action.

Most importantly, such a relationship develops in the crucible of trust. It is critical that the CEO believes that I have no agenda and no interest other than his/her development and actualization success.

Listen here: Episode 100 — Leadership Development — The Fifth Approach

What enables this collaboration to be liberating for the client is that I am free. I am not dependent on the work. That fact makes my coaching advice even more valuable because clients know they can trust me deeply to tell them objectively what I see and think, and when necessary, to be brutally honest by delivering tough news and a contrarian point of view.

To be most effective, a trusted advisor must strike a masterful and graceful balance between the possible contradiction of being passionately focused on the client’s successful growth and development and while retaining the objectivity of a dispassionate observer.

“What’s on your mind?” I asked Eric to begin the conversation.

After thinking for a moment, Eric replied, “My concern is that I may not be realizing my fullest potential as a leader. I’d like to become a more effective mentor to the leaders working for me by revitalizing my thinking about my own leadership development. How do you suggest I approach this exploration in a novel way?”

“This is a delicious inquiry, Eric,” I responded. “Its beauty arises not because something about your leadership is broken. To the contrary, you are successful, and your team is managing and executing well. Your concern is not a problem-triggered inquiry, but one driven by your desire to reach for more. Am I reading you correctly?”

Eric chuckled affirmingly, “Yes, you are absolutely right. During the last decade I reflected deeply on abundance- versus scarcity-based behavior. I believe it is my responsibility to my team to realize my fullest potential to lead. I am not pretending to have transcended my ego. In fact, I am motivated and propelled by a sense of pride in not leaving any stone unturned as I explore my development opportunities.”

“That’s awesome! Right there, you have identified a key point: the propelling reason of an inquiry defines its potentiating energy and therefore its reach and its development capacity. When an obstacle or a problem catalyzes movement, you are forever looking backward unless you recast the focus and energy. In contrast, by definition the impulse to realize your fullest potential is a future-bound inquiry.”

“Great!” Eric replied. “Curiously that’s also part of my conundrum. It is easier to go after a defined problem than to address a situation in which I don’t know what I don’t know. That is why I wonder how to approach this next development phase from a new place or in a novel way.”

“Yes, Eric, as we’ve discovered through our collaboration, certain inquiries are served best by asking “Why?” and by looking more deeply inside rather than by remaining on a superficial level. Other explorations are best served by charging forward into experimentation. In this case, my instinct is that the inquiry will be served best by first sketching a map of the leadership development terrain that integrates the four major approaches.”

“This sounds right. So, what have you got for me?”

“Let’s do something ambitious. Many approaches to leadership development have evolved over the last six decades. With a little bit of chutzpa and audacity, we can create a high-altitude framework that includes a broad cross-section of leadership development modalities by categorizing four main focuses in a two by two matrix. These will include a broad cross-section of the leadership development modalities. I then will offer a fifth approach by integrating those four in a way that meets your needs and aspirations.”

“I am intrigued, Aviv. Enough with the suspense, let’s get to it!”

“Two of the leadership development quadrants are inside-out approaches and two are outside-in. Let’s start with this basic diagram.”

Let’s name the lower left quadrant “skills.” Numerous approaches to leadership development look at a given role, such as supervisor, manager, or director, from the standpoint of its necessary tasks. The idea is to reverse-engineer the skills and competencies required to complete these tasks successfully. The result is a skills and competencies framework that must be mastered. The premise of this development approach is that mastering the skills defined for the role’s tasks will enable you to do well and even excel.

Because the skills-centered approach to leadership development has a number of advantages, many companies rely on a robust competencies and skills framework accompanied by training programs to develop their leaders’ skills. A core element of the skills-based approach is the belief that organizations should be able to train their people in each of the required skills. The fact that this approach is heavily tilted to training interventions is both its strength and its weakness.

Next, let’s call the upper right quadrant “situations.” In contrast to the lower left approach in which we develop specific skills, in this quadrant we develop the capacity to respond to a range of situations.

Situational leadership was developed in 1969 by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard as a life cycle theory of leadership. Its premise is that there is no single “best” style of leadership. Instead, effective leaders adapt their style to the performance readiness (ability and willingness) of their individuals/groups. The various styles are defined on the directive and supportive vectors to show a process that cycles through directing, coaching, supporting and delegating.

The thinking underlying this approach is that people who take on a new role initially need direction, then coaching, then support. Once they demonstrate mastery and motivation, delegating will empower them to become successful. Implicit in this approach is the idea that managers first must identify and diagnose accurately the situation they enter inside the context of a journey so they can customize their leadership response accordingly.

These two categories of development, situational and skills, were popularized over the last 60 years. The lower right quadrant is a more recent outside-in focus of leadership development, though it too can be traced to earlier versions.

The lower right quadrant is called “outcomes

.” The double premise of this approach to leadership development is that every role is defined by the outcomes it creates, which in turn enable and support the company’s business results and strategy.

An earlier version of the outcomes approach to leadership development was management by objectives. A rigorous practice built around this methodology in recent decades was the “OKR” management approach, which centered on the Objectives and Key Results that enable and deliver the desired objectives.

The pivot of the outcome approach’s first premise is the realization that your role is not defined by what you do. Rather, it is defined by the outcomes you create and the contributions you make. The critical factor of the second premise is that the outcomes you produce must offer a clear line-of-sight to how they enable the company’s purpose and strategic goals.

I have observed people struggle with this approach in two ways. First, they incorrectly use the terms inputs and outcomes interchangeably. Second, they confuse organizational level and business level outcomes. For example, simplifying processes can be an important organizational outcome to enable the business result of delighted and loyal customers.

I named the upper left quadrant “qualities.” Perhaps the most ancient approach to leadership development, qualities and virtues-based based development can be traced to the classic philosophers in ancient Greece, to the Stoics and to leaders like Marcus Aurelius.

My role model for the qualities approach is Benjamin Franklin. During his 16th year, Franklin identified thirteen virtues that he wanted to embody throughout his life. To do that, each week he picked one of those virtues and centered his life on it. Integrating it, applying it, thinking about it and making that virtue part of his consciousness became his inside-out development strategy. At the beginning of the next week, he would turn his attention to the next virtue on his list. After thirteen weeks when he had focused on all the virtues on his list, he would go back and begin the process again. The result was that during the course of a year, Ben Franklin spent four weeks living and breathing each of the thirteen virtues. At the beginning of the next year he repeated the process, a habit that he retained for the rest of his life.

The extraordinary power of an inward focusing development is that it becomes an evergreen source of refinement. For example, virtues such as order, sincerity, tranquility and justice offer new development opportunities. The inside-out focus on virtues you decide are important for you provides inexhaustible guidance, inspiration and wisdom that enable you to deepen the living embodiment of expression of those qualities.

In summary these are the four main approaches to leadership development:

  1. Skills
  2. Situations
  3. Outcomes
  4. Qualities

However, there is a fifth approach, which is to design your own person evolution by embracing the potential and power of the four we just identified. At different times and circumstances, each moves to the foreground to become central for you. You will find that there is an inbreath and outbreath by being energized and guided from both inside and outside needs and impulses.

As my dialogue with Eric continued, I proposed that he design his own leadership evolution by reflecting on each of the four main approaches and answering these questions:

Skills:

  1. Which skills and competencies are most critical to my current and future roles? In which ones am I more proficient than others and therefore I must lead and which should I delegate/outsource?
  2. What development opportunities are available to me? What new skills will I emphasize and develop?

Situations:

  1. What environments enable me to thrive? In what situations do I achieve the best results?
  2. What situational opportunities will I focus on? What situations require me to change my approach?

Outcomes:

  1. What are the most critical outcomes I have produced? How have I created these results?
  2. What new outcomes will I create? What will I do to produce these results?

Qualities:

  1. What are the qualities I value most in myself?
  2. What qualities do I value most in others?
  3. What qualities will I cultivate to further develop my aspirational character?

By reflecting on these four development strategies, Eric was able to design his unique leadership path. Our trusted advisory collaboration continued as he embarked on his journey down that new road.

Now it’s your turn. Turn the key. Focus on designing your leadership development path. What skills, situations, outcomes and qualities will you make central to your leadership evolution? How will you coach your teams to take their leadership to a whole new level?

Unleash your and your team’s potential by integrating these four modalities to create the fifth approach.

© Aviv Shahar

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