Why #leadership development #fails & #How to #fix it!

What’s with the # – It’s for #twitter. But imagine if everything was written with a ‘#’, if everything was a keyword? How would that work?

Well, it is no different for the first time leader. A new language, new words, new meanings and too much information which can be blinding. A new place where everything has an alternative and every decision has a repercussion, more than ever. If you are already what one can call a ‘leader’ you know the pressure I am talking about.

The pressure to change, to live up, to manage, to drive and to deliver! But how? With a world where everything seems to be top priority, like the # or the keyword, every new leader takes one of two ways  :

A: Ignores all hashtags ‘#’ and goes with the best guess any way! OR B: Tries to deal with all of them and eventually burns out!

While our poor protagonist is making the wrong choice or the wrong choice, the mounting pressure teaches him/ her to either pretend or defend. That’s the behavioral approach which is the social equivalent of being either a lifelong victim or a ‘know it all’. Where is the ‘leader’ in all this, you ask? So do I!

Add to this, a dose of the ‘leadership development workshop’ and the person in question hears the following :

#Sources of power for a #leader | #Types of #leaders | #Leadership principles | #Leadership Best Practices | #Leadership Models | #Delegation | #Situational Leadership | #Action centered #leadership | #level5 Leadership | #Feedback | #Lead by #example | #Team-Management | # Task-Management | #Conflict Management | #People & #Project Management | #Inspiration | #Problem solving | #Decision making | #Motivation”

Thats pretty much every two day leadership workshop ever designed. To you, me and every other L&D / HR professional these are must have skills! To the protagonist, nothing but more words.

How do these words benefit them? What should they do when, under pressure, these words frankly just don’t occur to them?

The answer is not to change everything head over heels and de-credit what the best of thinkers and management maestros have thought up. All the buzzwords and # (hashtags) are both important and relevant. The challenge however is in how these are driven and drilled down the to-be leaders #neural network?

The answer may be in Bloom’s taxonomy. Blooms taxonomy is a model that demarcates levels of adult learning. Understanding this could be the key to teaching and driving leadership development.

Most of current leadership content takes people (learners) to the receiving andresponding level i.e. they understand the definitions and are able to recall it when faced with the terms in day to day conversations.

Some workshops, practice oriented sessions and customized learning experiences do manage to take this leadership learning to the organizing level i.e. participants are able to plot valid responses, scenarios and tools together. But is this enough to prepare these learners for the real world challenges and expectations?

To make meaningful difference, we need to take this learning to the ‘Valuing‘  and ‘Internalizing‘ levels. How?

While even through workshops that are limited in content but deep rooted in practice, some amount of this is certainly possible. However, I have always seen the best results through #gamification and #simulation.

Here are some ideas that you can use for the next set of people you work with :

1. Use theatre – It’s nothing complicated and there are many ways of using this. For e.g. Make and prepare a drama club in your office and use them to drive situations where learners participate and get to respond to complex workplace conversations as leaders and managers. Feel free to take this to other avenues of learning like communication and customer service. If not this, give simple scenarios and get teams to role-play them without knowing what the opposition plans to do.

2. Use Gamification – I don’t mean to complicate at all, but this simply means to create content where people get to decide on their own, pay for the consequences and build rewards on their own with limited supervised learning. For the nay-sayers, this is not idealistic because the activity is still very much supervised, the learning is not! For e.g. here are few things you can do :

  • I designed this simulation called the ‘6talk plan’ for managerial development.
  • This is basically the 6 key conversations every manager needs to have with their subordinates – 1. Start of the annual goal setting 2. Quarterly / Incidental Review 3. Half Yearly Review 4. Personalized feedback / teaching moments (Task based) 5. Personalized feedback / teaching moments (Behavior based) and 6. Annual review and appraisal discussion.
  • I recommend that you go the whole hog and invest a week in building content for this. You will need a Fictitious company brief, a CEO brief (To whom everybody reports including the protagonist), a Manager Brief, Team member profiles 4-5 (Fictitious). This is just background.
  • Then you need situational cases for each of the 6 conversations and cue cards for concepts / models that you would like people to use. If possible, even video record these briefs as personal anecdotes instead of words on paper.
  • Each case then needs to be played by unique trio’s , Manager – Team Member – Observer (Regulate roles here!)
  • You can also record an ideal conversation on video so that people can learn and compare to.
  • Quick-tip – Make it tough and realistic at all times. Too basic and you will have people bored, too complicated and they will disengage. Don’t be afraid of some trial and error.

3. Use Business Simulation – Personally, I am a big fan of Ram Charan’s and Larry Bossidy’s book called ‘Execution’. I feel it effectively describes what every leader should know about getting things done. In essence it says that there are three key aspects to perfect execution : People, Operations and Strategy

Points 1 and 2 in this article work really well when teaching ‘People’ and to some extent ‘Operations’ aspects. But for strategy the key is to teach people about the broader picture. Strong debrief, business leader feedback and buy-in are crucial here. If you have a good budget, maybe you can go for some real time online simulation like Capstone etc., if like me the budgets are often tighter and the management wants ‘Harvard’ like learning in ‘private-tuition’ costs, try using Monopoly and/ or Human Chess!

What I have shared here are merely some quick ideas of building more meaningful leadership development options for your workforce. Needless to say that the intent is not to prove that theory isn’t important. The question simply is how to treat it the right way to ensure application?

While you try your hand at the above tips, please do use your judgement focusing on how to leverage on these ideas and not just replace everything else. Let me leave you with a story that tells us why this judgement is critical for both , leadership development and learning in general :

This is allegedly a true story. Engineers at a major aerospace company were instructed to test the effects of bird-strikes (notably geese) on the windshields of airliners and military jets. To simulate the effect of a goose colliding with an aircraft travelling at high speed, the test engineers built a powerful gun, with which they fired dead chickens at the windshields. The simulations using the gun and the dead chickens worked extremely effectively, happily proving the suitability of the windshields, and several articles about the project appeared in the testing industry press.

It so happened that another test laboratory in a different part of the world was involved in assessing bird-strikes – in this case on the windshields and drivers’ cabs of new very high speed trains. The train test engineers had read about the pioneering test developed by the aerospace team, and so they approached them to ask for specifications of the gun and the testing methods. The aerospace engineers duly gave them details, and the train engineers set about building their own simulation.

The simulated bird-strike tests on the train windshields and cabs produced shocking results. The supposed state-of-the-art shatter-proof high speed train windshields offered little resistance to the high-speed chickens; in fact every single windshield that was submitted for testing was smashed to pieces, along with a number of train cabs and much of the test booth itself.

The horrified train engineers were concerned that the new high speed trains required a safety technology that was beyond their experience, so they contacted the aerospace team for advice and suggestions, sending them an extensive report of the tests and failures.

The brief reply came back from the aero-engineers: “You need to defrost the chickens….”


Abhinandan Chatterjee (Article also available independently at www.abhinandanchatterjee.com / www.humanwareworks.com / LinkedIn)

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