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11 March 2011

Putting the development back in leadership development

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I have a client, the chief executive of a government agency, who wants her senior team to be more strategic, more thoughtful, more teamlike. Ok, the truth is that nearly all my clients want their teams to be like this. And they hire and fire people, restructure departments and teams, throw expensive two-day strategic-thinking retreats, and tend to be disappointed by the results. Some of this mystifies me. How many of you have seen new hires go down in flames, new structures create more havoc than help, and two-day retreats evaporate on the first day back in the office? Why are we continually re-surprised that these things don’t work? If the definition of insanity is repeating the same action while hoping for a different outcome, huge portions of our organizational interventions are insane.

Why do we insist on this, though? Another client was working with a team of consultants from different firms on his senior team frustration. One of my colleagues suggested that the real need was to lift the capacity of the team.

“Yes,” the head consultant answered, “that’s what the restructure is designed to do.”

“No,” my colleague continued, “I’m talking about increasing the capacity of those current people to do the thinking their job requires.”

“You mean like bonding?” the consultant asked.

“No, like a program to develop their capacity to think well together.”

The consultant stared, aghast. “But that would take so long!”

And it’s true. Developing people takes a long time. In addition to that rather disappointing idea, there’s an idea that is rather more hopeful: developing people actually works. And it will better support the retreats, the restructuring and the fresh strategies to work too. Research from far-flung fields such as adult development, leadership, neuroscience all suggest that the adult capacity for deep change—from our brains to our behaviors—is greater than we ever imagined. These fields are not just showing us that it’s possible for adults to change, to be able to be more sophisticated, more empathic, more wise, but they are showing us the mechanisms by which the development happens. Just as we know there are activities which will build your body and make you stronger and more flexible, there are activities which will build your mind and make it stronger and more flexible. Simple practices like asking different questions or taking multiple perspectives will not only pay off in the present with better relationships and business results, but will sustain change long into the future. In the next weeks and months on this blog, we’ll explore this terrain together, putting the development back in leadership development, and taking our capacity for future greatness as not just a hope but a promise we all owe to the world. Stay tuned.

A version of this blog appeared on the Center for Public leadership website

Another version of this blog appeared on the becomealeader.org website

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