What Propels Leader Development?

Posted: November 1, 2009 in Leadership

In the last few months I’ve written a series of articles in this newsletter on the topic of leader development. In particular, I have gone into some detail on the levels or stages that all individuals go through on their way to becoming highly effective leaders. This month, I want to talk about what propels this developmental process.

We all have our own style of leadership, and this is usually related to our basic personality traits. However, we know that most personality traits change very little over time once we become adults, and research suggests that personality traits have little or no effect on the perceived effectiveness of leaders. On the other hand, there is an increasing body of evidence pointing to a positive link between leader effectiveness and leader development.

I believe there are four key areas where we see the positive effect of development, where greater maturity leads to greater effectiveness in the leadership arena: self-knowledge; self-awareness; self-control; and self-efficacy. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Self-knowledge. Highly developed leaders have a high level of self-knowledge, acquired over time. Early stage leaders have less self-knowledge and self-understanding than late stage leaders. This is probably why most leadership development programs have a self-knowledge component. For instance, developing leaders are given various psychometric tests and acquire a basic understanding of their own personality profile. This provides much needed perspective as they encounter situations throughout their career. I can remember doing a masters course where we learned our Myers-Briggs type. I don’t give much credence to that particular tool, but it was nonetheless a real eye-opener to me to learn that most people didn’t perceive the world in exactly the same manner as I do. A key part of self-knowledge is knowing your strengths and weaknesses, where you excel and the limits of your talents. This also allows us to develop a greater appreciation for individual differences and the importance of leveraging these for individual and team effectiveness.

Self-awareness. This is the ability to observe and monitor one’s own thoughts, feelings, behaviour, and effect on others on a moment-to-moment basis. Early stage leaders have little or no awareness of these elements, especially in the heat of the moment. They may become aware of them after the fact, but will often remain unconscious habits. Highly developed leaders can monitor their thoughts, feelings and actions as they interact with others. This increases the likelihood of making optimal choices. For instance, by the end of my career as a military officer, I would often realize that I was witnessing myself as a third party while I was interacting with a subordinate, peer or superior. I could assess options for interaction on the fly as I was speaking or communicating. This type of effect can be achieved through a lot of experience, but it can also be expedited through various awareness exercises that can be practised deliberately or at set periods throughout the day. I have also found that concentration practice (such as meditation) to be particularly effective in this regard, as it allows one to become cognizant of the unending stream of thoughts and feelings, their origin (often spontaneous or automatic), and their potential or actual effect on others and us. We can also see how this level of self-knowledge and self-awareness can lead to greater self-control.

Self-control. This is the ability to use self-knowledge, and especially self-awareness, to adjust one’s behaviour and reactions to the precise needs of a situation or other person. Beginning leaders are often highly reactive and have little or no self-control. They often expect others to conform to their needs and wants, rather than adapting to the objective requirements of the situation. This was certainly my experience when I was a young officer in the Army. On the other hand, leaders at later stages of development are able to condition their responses and react in seemingly optimal and appropriate manners much more often. They have developed the versatility to respond and shape situations for the mutual benefit of all involved.

Self-efficacy. This is essentially the belief in one’s ability to be effective and to make a positive contribution to others and to the wider world. Beginning leaders often have under-developed self-confidence. As we saw with the Diplomat level of development, they will try to conform to group norms and ingratiate themselves with followers, rather than risk interpersonal conflict, even though they may have hierarchical power and authority. On the other hand, if leaders are given adequate training and develop expertise in a particular area, they can grow their self-confidence through personal and group achievements. If this learning is channelled effectively, it can generate high levels of self-assurance and efficacy. However, this is increasingly balanced by knowledge of one’s own limits and the real constraints on action and effectiveness. It is a paradox, but highly developed leaders often combine an almost unbounded confidence and sense of possibility with surprising humility. This may come from the realization that nothing of consequence is ever achieved without the help and support of others.

You may conclude that this is just the effect of experience. However, many managers develop to a certain level of maturity as leaders and then basically stop developing. This is where certain personality traits, personal interests and preferences, or career experiences may come into play. Luck may also play a major role in how a person develops over their lifetime.

I thought this month’s article would be the concluding instalment, but there is so much to say about leadership and leader development. Next month, I will delve into the relationship between leadership development and transformational versus transactional leadership. Until then, keep on developing, and don’t forget to send me any questions or comments on this series of articles.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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