A Culture for Leadership Development

With the many organizational changes that have been accelerated in almost all organizations, it would stand to reason that leaders need to get up-to-speed and highly effective as quickly as possible. Due to reorganizations, restructuring and cost-cutting measures, many organizations are finding themselves with a large number of people in leadership positions that would have never been there this quickly had it not been for the drastic measures of the past months.

The idea of accelerating the development of leaders…and development of specific leaders who need the support…is an important topic. It also begs the question, why is it so difficult to speed up the process of leadership learning when the demands are so great and the need is so pressing? I would suggest that the speed of leadership development is, in large part (not entirely) a function of the organizational culture in which the leader operates.

No time to wait for leaders to develop  A recent article in the OD Practitioner suggested some interesting issues that are barriers within an organizational culture to learning and performance. While I’m not sure I agree with all of the conclusions (I hardly ever do!), I think there are some interesting findings worth considering in terms of cultural inhibitors to growth. These included:

 1. The collective attitudes and established norms. One of the inhibitors to accelerated learning on the part of leaders is the overall attitudes and actions of support (or not) within the organization. This is in part the issue of diversity of opinion and dialogue. On the one hand, if there is a positive and open attitude in the organization about learning, it may be a very cohesive culture. On the other hand, if that attitude and norm diminishes the value of leadership learning and only focuses on the value of leadership action, it might be that it is difficult for leaders to identify their performance gaps and address them.

2. The written and unwritten rules that influence behavior. On this topic I’ve written and spoken a lot. It is less the written rules within the organization that influence behavior than it is the unwritten ones. The issue of “how we do things around here” can dictate exactly the focus of “successful” leaders (defined by the organization.) If the unwritten rule is, to succeed you have to show forcefulness as a leader, it is difficult to imagine an open mind when it comes to collaborative methods of leadership. These rules of behavior and engagement cannot be underestimated when it comes to the overall effectiveness of leadership development.

3. Tolerance toward risk and innovation. At the beginning of a leader’s development, innovation is not only easier—it is likely to be desirable by the leader. If I don’t know any better, I may come up with ideas that have not been tried before in order to establish myself as the new person in that role. Unfortunately, in many organizational cultures, the tolerance towards risk is so low that the actual lesson that must be learned by the leader is to not rock the boat. This not only stymies the development of the leader, but the development of the organization as well. If there is a culture of humiliation around failed ideas and innovations, it is unlikely that the new leader will develop quickly into the powerful person he or she has the potential to be.

While a culture like the one above can make things more difficult, it does not have to create an impossible situation. Like with many similar issues, the first step is to acknowledge that these are forces fighting the desired change. Then you can create strategies to address them. It may be that you need to take ownership of your own development if the environment is one that discourages it. You can test the unwritten rules by asking, “Is this what we really believe around here?” And you can deal with risk aversion in large part by doing your research and making sure that everybody is clear on the potential upside as well as the downside. None of this is easy in practice, but unless you take accountability to start the change within your organization, you will be waiting a long time for somebody else to do it.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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