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Leadership Learning - Getting to What Leaders Actually Do

If you have a professional interest in Leadership Development, then sooner or later you will need to move away from exploring what leadership is, and focus on what leaders really do. Coming from a background in experiential learning this seems just so obvious, yet it’s becoming more and more frequent that I encounter leadership development initiatives that seem unwilling, or incapable, of making this move. So what is it about engaging with the practicalities of leadership behaviour that is so apparently repellent? My argument is this, if your work in leadership development doesn’t have a significant element of observed and reviewed practice, then you’re not actually developing leaders.




Is it that we, as leadership development professionals, are convinced that leadership is a standard set of actions and practices that, if implemented by any intelligent person, will result in effective leadership? The sheer volume of counter-arguments is pretty compelling, but suppose we accept this approach to leadership, isn’t it incumbent on us as educators to check whether these actions and practices are being….well….practiced? Having taught what these actions should be, do we not need then to examine whether they are being effectively translated into behavioural changes? Professionally I can’t say that I’ve been effective in my work unless I have the evidence that it has worked, and in a leadership development role I need to see and hear my students in action as better leaders than they were when I met them.




Or maybe we adhere to theories that suggests a more contingency based approach to leadership development? That leaders need to have the capability to respond to any given situation with an appropriate leadership response, and our role as educators is to train prospective leaders to interpret the situation and then adopt a corresponding leadership style. Again there are strong counter-arguments but lets explore this as a purely theoretical approach to leadership development. If we believe in a framework that says “If faced with this…do that” or “If your reading of the situation suggests X, then the right course of action will be Y” should we not be exposing our students to multiple learning environments that allow them to examine and experience both the assessment of these varying situations and the corresponding ‘correct responses’?




Or maybe your ideas around leadership lean towards the transformational. You want your leaders to be full of vision, enthusiasm, passion and an unswerving belief in a better tomorrow, combined with the charisma that will win over followers to a compelling shared vision. Alternatively you may want your leaders to be servants to the cause, less concerned about their personal status and advancement, but hugely supportive of their colleagues who are getting the job done. Two different ideas about how leaders should be, but both wholly dependent on the quality of the relationships that the prospective leader is able to form. Leadership is enacted through multiple personal relationships that must be established and sustained through good times and bad, so do we not need to check out whether our developing leaders have the capacity to form and leverage these relationships across a range of circumstances? Knowing the theory and learning the techniques is one thing, applying them to get results is a whole other ball-game, and it’s one that is best developed on the practice-field before taking it live.




Alternatively you might take the view that leadership is all about power and influence, and day-to-day this is looks like a whole series of transactions that need to be negotiated to find the right outcome for the organisation. So how do you know that your prospective leaders can successfully manoeuvre their way through the gamut of personal agendas and interests that will be in play during these negotiations if you don’t create the learning environments that demand them to perform?




Whatever you believe leadership to be is a matter for you to decide. However, looking at this in a really simple way, it’s about getting people to do things you want or need them to do. If you can succeed, and the people do what you want them to, you’re being a leader, if the people don’t do what you want them to do, then you’re not being a leader. So at it’s heart leadership is an interaction between leaders and followers, and if you’re tasked with developing leaders you need to be able to assure yourself that these interactions produce positive results - the people do what the leader wants them to do. And this assurance, in my opinion, can only come from watching the evidence unfold real-time - can this prospective leader walk-the-talk or not?




Leadership learning environments need to include practice-fields. Structured experiences where leadership behaviours are developed, scrutinised and the resultant learning is integrated into the feedback loops that prepare subjects for the next iteration. By all means have a strong core of selected theory to back this up, but the focus is always on the practice of leadership as this is ultimately what we are tasked with delivering. Look for learning tools that are non-prescriptive as they are more adaptable to your particular theoretical framework. These will almost certainly focus on purposeful interaction and need to avoid overcomplication if you’re looking for authentic behaviour rather than ‘cleverness’. At RSVP Design we’ve followed these principles in creating and employing a wide range of learning tools in leadership development. Our success in creating the Colourblind exercise and deploying it into a huge range of leadership practice-fields has been followed by the development of powerful tools such as T-trade which immerses students in the behavioural minefield of high-stakes negotiation and the complementary need for good back-office processes. In all cases our design intent is very simple:


Engage participants in learning environments that make it easy to expose behaviour, evaluate effect, elicit learning and enthuse students to want to try again.


Does that sound like your leadership class? If it doesn’t give us a call.

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