The self-development of leadership development

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 06-03-14

Leadership development has gone by many names over the last century and has evolved in many ways. It has come in the form of apprenticeships, to purposeful rotational assignments, to training, and executive coaches (which are about as generic today as accountants). But through this entire evolution, leadership development has almost always been about the masters teaching the students. This is either following the example of the guy who already “made it” or by internalizing the lessons of the instructor in a class, such as those run by the Center for Creative Leadership or even our own Leading Lean 3-day program (of which, I am still a believer and a fan).

But what has been slow to emerge is the leader who systematically develops themselves. Certainly, some individuals do this naturally. But it is not built into leadership development.

When I am coaching leaders in being more effective as leaders on the lean journey (allow me to keep this distinct from generic “executive coaching”), my focus is on getting the leader to articulate where they are, where they want to be, and what they can do close the gap. I developed a specific A3-format tool to help guide this process. Of course, I help with this process, whether it is feedback to help develop a more distinct and clear understanding of their current state, crafting a clear target, or helping execute the elements of their development plan. But…it is THEIR plan.

I’ll even end up having conversations with people in their organizations: “can you get my leader to do this or do that?” NO! It’s not what your objective is for them, it is the leader’s own objectives. It is self-development.

Why is self-development more important today than directed development? Because the starting point for leaders is more variable than ever before, and the needs of the future less anticipated than ever before. Each leader must have their own development vector, and that vector will change over time.

Roselinde Torres had a nice little TED talk (introduced to me by my mother, actually) about leadership development. The 3 questions she asks I think are intriguing, because they indicate whether the leader is prepared to continue changing their perspectives and themselves. The 3 questions are:

Where are you looking to anticipate change? Simply put, you cannot canvas the universe. Certainly, be well read and well informed, but about what? Where do you need to pay more attention?

What is the diversity measure of your network? Since she is from a large consultancy, I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually developed a tool to measure that, although I hope not. But are you set up to get a lot of opinions that are already like your own, or are you surrounded by inputs from people who have a different perspective? Many years ago I set up a Personal Advisory Board. I left several very smart and trusted people off because they wouldn’t give me anything new. I wanted a diverse set of inputs.

Are you courageous enough to abandon the past? The is more about remaking yourself, your organization, or whatever change is necessary. Who cares what the inputs are if you aren’t willing to act on them? In isolation, I don’t like this question, because I see plenty of “leaders” willing to abandon the past just to be able to say they are changing, for change’s sake. I don’t think this is the kind of “courage” we are looking for.

You can view Torres’ full TED video here.

Reflection question: Do you seek opportunities for others to develop you in their model, or do you own your own definition of a leader and your own path to achieve that vision?

If you are interested in our help in developing leaders for lean transformation, please contact us.


  • Roselinde asks – “Why is the leadership gap widening?”

    The quick, easy answer is that the leadership industry does not understand what leadership is. Leadership is about people and how people react to what leaders do and don’t do. Leadership consists of what followers follow.

    Roselinde would have us believe that leadership is defined by answering three questions – Where are you looking to anticipate change, what is the diversity level of your network, and are you courageous enough to abandon the past? But these are all questions of what products and services will be in demand. These are all questions that a highly motivated, highly committed, fully engaged workforce of Superstars who are emotionally driven to throw all their creativity, innovation, productivity, energy, experience, knowledge, and intelligence at their work are more than capable of answering.

    These questions are about what to do and how to do it. They are not questions about supplying superior leadership to employees so that they will become as described above and fully capable of deciding what to do and how to do it (after all, that is their job).

    Because of this focus on what to do and how to do it, leaders fail to provide what the workforce needs in order to excel, that being superior leadership. People cannot be directed to be highly motivated and to have high morale, but they can be led to be that way.

    Roselinde believes that the leadership industry is teaching the wrong things. I agree wholeheartedly.

    Ben Simonton June 4, 2014 at 10:01 am
  • Ben, thanks for sharing. I think we both agree that the leadership industry is teaching the wrong thing. I wasn’t sharing Roselinde’s model to suggest it was the right one. I would use it multiple times with multiple people before even proposing it as the model. I’m just sharing it as a good example of leadership development can look different than it does today. And, my primary point, we have to stop telling leaders what all the answers are.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh June 5, 2014 at 9:56 am
  • Jaime, I see your point but believe that there are certain actions that are right and others that are wrong for very good, consistent reasons based on science. I only say this because I have proven this to be true over many years of managing people.

    Ben Simonton June 5, 2014 at 1:44 pm
  • Hi Jaime and Ben

    Of her three questions the only one I feel is truly related to be a good leader is the second one, if all you surround yourself with are yes man, than you are not leading anything, you are just being followed because of your position.

    True leaders show people what they are about and give those people a reason to follow and support them. The biggest single reason they will follow you is because they respect you, and you have to earn it. You can win that respect by doing most the following.

    As a leader you do not need to know everything, you just need to know your people, by listen to them and using their ideas you do not lower your self rather you elevate yourself. They should be the ones identifying the opportunities and threats, as well as getting the jobs done day to day, you only need to support them by providing the aid they need when they need it (whether personally or by having others do it).

    Listen to them and talk with them openly and honestly, it is what all of us want.

    As a leader you should empower people to act and congratulate them for doing so when they do good. When they make mistakes help them determine why the mistake occurred and develop new procedures to prevent repeating the mistake. But always as a leader you should accept the responsibility for the mistakes, so make sure you do not blame them, after all you put them in the position.

    If you are doing these simple things people will follow you because they believe in and respect you. Position can only make people subordinate to you, it will not make you a leader nor will it make them follow you. Leaders earn their followers respect, and become leaders because people are willing to follow them.

    Robert Drescher June 5, 2014 at 3:48 pm
  • Robert, thank you. Yes, I think that is one of the most useful questions. You should surround yourself with new inputs, voices, feedback. and so on. You engage people in meaningful ways, encourage them all to think for themselves.Yes men are quite dangerous.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh June 6, 2014 at 5:54 am
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