What Is an Effective Leadership Program?

Peter Langton || Organizational Psychologist ||

In a recent workshop I gave on developing leadership skills, I asked the participants, “Who wants to be supervised?” Not surprisingly, few hands were raised. I followed it with the question, “Who wants a good supervisor?” Almost all hands went up.

We all want a good supervisor, but few of us want to actually be supervised. We have created an impossible paradigm: Don’t supervise us, but if you do it, do it well! Leadership certainly falls under the auspices of a necessary evil for some and a virtuous act of bravery for others.

It seems the never-ending question about leadership is: What is it? I often think that defining leadership is similar to defining talent. We often have difficulty defining talent, but we know it when we see it. Think in terms of trying to put together a world-class orchestra as a novice. We can hear when there is a lack of talent in the orchestra, but the question remains: When is there enough talent, and how do you know it when you see it?

We all have examples of poor leadership and stories of leadership gone awry. But if we were responsible for creating the leadership dream team in our own organization, what skills would we be looking for, who would make the all-star team and how would they work together?

In the workshop I conduct on leadership, I ask people to define leadership. Inevitably, high-brow terms such as “vision,” “communication” and “interpersonal skills” float to the top of each group’s list. Simultaneously, I ask the group to define managers. Perhaps not surprisingly, this list is less than flattering, including terms such as “task completion,” “micro-management” and “demanding.” We think and speak highly of leaders, but our experience with managers is much less flattering. But aren’t managers also leaders? Is there a way to bridge this gap between our experience of the typical leader and our expectation of the great leader?

The Process of Influence

One of the problems with leadership is that we have defined it in terms that few mortals can accomplish. Vroom and Jago (2007) articulated one of the best definitions of leadership: “the process of influence.” While we certainly would like to see that influence be toward creating high-level vision and communication plans, the practical aspect of leadership is driving others toward positive outcomes.

The process of influence is a more realistic vision of leadership that places the proper emphasis on achievable results. It is the rare manager who can inspire others to great action. However, every leader can certainly influence another individual. When we place leadership in achievable terms, we also create a path toward successful leadership strategies. When the goal is inspiring others and creating complex communication strategies, “leadership” often leads to endless taskforce meetings looking to devise mission and vision statements.

Once we accept that our best-case scenario is to influence others, we create a dynamic that allows for incremental and sometimes subtle advances. Leadership is as much about taking steps as it is about transforming a culture. A good leader constantly makes subtle adjustments and keeps the group moving forward. A conductor finds the out-of-tune instrument and brings it back in tune. He or she doesn’t fire the entire orchestra or even the single musician but identifies the problem, seeks resolution and returns to the game plan. In the real world, how many times do we ignore the out-of-tune, make a rash move and eliminate the problem, or simply walk away from it? Leadership is the internal fortitude to take a time-out, analyze the problem and make the adjustment.

Effective Leadership Training

The fundamental errors of leadership development programs often focus on leadership as an unachievable construct. Once we recognize that leadership is a daily intervention and the summation of multiple minor tasks, we can better design leadership development and coaching programs using strategies of mastering small interventions.

Effective leadership development includes:

  • Knowing what good performance looks like and being able to define it in practical terms
  • Learning to have conversations about things that are working and the difficult conversations about things that are not
  • Developing a sense of self-awareness: Every leader has blind spots; knowing what they are catapults successful individual development.
  • Creating a team that supplements members’ strengths and weaknesses: A team of similar skills may have great harmony but will fail when weaknesses are exposed.
  • Connecting with others: Leaders should engage in more than the task at hand and focus on more than what happened yesterday. They should know what motivates their employees and support them with specific rewards and feedback that is customized to the individuals.
  • Avoiding programs that focus on leadership platitudes about creating missions and vision, focusing instead on practical, deliverable and achievable tasks

Leadership training is a must-have program for all organizations and all organizational leaders. Doing it right requires a focus on the fundamental skills that help leaders influence others. We don’t always have to change the world. Feedback on what will make the work environment a little better can be the most useful and transformational feedback anyone receives. Today, change how you influence; tomorrow, make another change. Then, rinse and repeat.