Is “Leader” Who you Are or What you Do?

KarenCoaching, Leadership, Learning

Penguins walking single file on a beach

“When do we start the up-skilling?’

I was in front of a group of executive level leaders – a mastermind group that met monthly for the purpose of supporting the members to accelerate into C-level roles. This particular group was made up of “younger” VP’s – people in their 30’s, who hadn’t been in their roles more than a year or two. And they really wanted to “know more stuff” in order to do their jobs well.

Given they had all up until fairly recently been in “manager” and “doer” roles, I could appreciate their frame on development. After all, they’d built their entire careers to this point on the basis of knowing things and knowing how to do things. What they lacked, though, was the understanding that their ability to lead was not going to be a function of “what they know” but rather “who they need to be” – and that “knowing” was going to take more and more of a back seat the further up the organizational ladder they go.

Talent development has to be considered differently if organizations are going to 1) retain key people, 2) grow their succession pipeline, and 3) ensure they are able to operate and grow effectively in our post-pandemic VUCA world. “Knowing things” is a never-ending process best owned by technical and subject matter experts as the foundation for any business. “Being a leader” arises when you can assess, interpret, relate, challenge and synthesize such that major change can be effected.

I recently attended a webinar offered by ATD featuring speakers Carlo Bos of Co-Active Training Institute and Lori Mazan of Sounding Board. They proposed an approach to development that I think makes a lot of sense.

“Interweaving Vertical and Horizontal Development: A Whole-Person Approach to Scale Leadership” offered that there need to be two distinct strategies for development, and that while one is conventional and necessary at a basic level, the other is the only approach that will ensure organizations thrive in today’s – and tomorrow’s world.

Horizontal development is what the leadership development industry is set up to deliver – classroom-based, topic-centred, curriculum-driven learning focused on skills, expertise, knowledge and competencies. All of which are necessary but no longer sufficient. Vertical development is multi-dimensional, experiential, intentional and spans the “what,” the “who” and the “how.”

Vertical development says that we must disrupt the usual way of doing things and open the individual’s mind to search for new and better ways. Vertical development seeks to expose individuals to different perspectives, opinions, world views and backgrounds such that mental models are challenged and bias is uncovered. And vertical development invites the synthesis of new information and perspectives such that new, creative, innovative solutions are more likely to be devised.

The academic source material for much of the above can be found here.

The coach approach to leadership is all about vertical development – questions, invitations to brainstorm, experiments with safety to fail and the debrief of key learning. Conventional top-down approaches judge right and wrong, reward knowledge and operate within a safe zone of subject matter expertise and black/white judgment. The coach approach creates sustainable change, high levels of engagement and organizations with greater capacity.

Most importantly, the coach approach – the vertical development approach – is rooted in relationship. As more and more people are assessing their work lives one thing is emerging loud and clear – people are craving relational connection. Sadly, most workplaces are attempting to solve for the world’s collective existential crisis by layering on programs and policies.

Time for a change. Time for a new, truly creative approach to work and workplaces. And leadership.