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11 April 2024

Leadership Development is Human Development

Written by
Bill Pullen

In the dynamic landscape of organizational leadership, I am privileged to engage with leaders at every level of organizations, from fledgling frontline managers to seasoned executives in corporate, government, and non-governmental organizations. While our conversations often revolve around effective leadership strategies on the surface, a deeper undercurrent flows beneath—a current of profound, existential, deeply human questions and concerns. 

“Can I truly meet the needs of this organization?”
“Am I up to the challenge before me?”
“How do I stay true to my values and beliefs when I feel others, or even just the demands of my role, are challenging them?”
“Who am I, and what is my purpose in this world?”
”How do I balance the needs of my loved ones with the demands of my professional life?”

These questions persist, echoing in the hearts and minds of leaders, irrespective of their external markers of success.

What’s become abundantly clear to me over the twenty-plus years of working with leaders is that leadership development is, at a fundamental level, human development. The journey to becoming a better leader is simultaneously a journey towards growing as a human being. 

At the heart of leadership development lies an ongoing quest for the very human needs of safety, purpose, connection, and identity. The leaders with whom I work, regardless of their organization or role within that organization, grapple with existential questions that mirror the universal human struggle to find a sense of belonging and a secure, meaningful sense of place and impact in the world. 

The most senior leaders I coach, often seen as epitomes of success by traditional standards, are not exempt from this quest. They are often surprised by the intensity with which these questions emerge when they ascend to the senior most, usually long sought-after roles. They still ponder much deeper questions that go to the heart of core human concerns.

As leaders ascend the organizational hierarchy, the complexity in which they operate and the external pressures of success increase, but so does the quest for – and, I would argue, the need for –  internal exploration. The very nature of leadership necessitates a deeper understanding of oneself to understand:

  • How to leverage one’s strengths and weaknesses
  • How to make sense of oneself, others, and the context in which one operates 
  • How to recognize the lenses through which one views themselves, others, and the larger systems in which they operate
  • How to identify potential biases, assumptions, and limiting or empowering beliefs

and much more. In so doing, leaders develop the capacity to enact more skillful actions to meet the needs of their organizations and the people they lead.

Veronica (name changed) was a long-time leader in a global Fortune 500 company. She had moved skillfully through the organization’s ranks by consistently demonstrating her ability to build strong teams, solve complex problems, and deliver results. When she was tapped as the likely successor to the CEO, she started engaging in several new initiatives that helped her broaden her knowledge and understanding of the business and the external environment. 

She felt confident about the idea of stepping into the role when the time came. But when everything she had been preparing for finally happened, and she was named CEO, she found herself consumed by self-doubt. During her first week on the job, she was convinced that she and the board had made a terrible mistake. Fears and doubts that she thought she had put to rest long ago came to the forefront, and she found herself unable to sleep, slow to make necessary decisions, and communicating in an uncharacteristically abrupt way. 

As Veronica and I reflected together, she could see that she had “fallen back” to an earlier, less confident version of herself because of the pressure of the new role. Simply becoming aware of the pattern, acknowledging it, and being kind to herself were the first steps toward returning to a more empowered version of herself. With this foundation, she could look for support from the resources she had around her, including her team, mentors, and coach. She began investigating her assumptions and beliefs about herself, how she led, and what it meant to be a CEO in a Fortune 500 company. She explored questions like: 

  • What are the limiting beliefs I hold about myself that might prevent me from leading at this scale?
  • What gifts do I bring to this role?
  • What is the higher purpose that guides my leadership? 
  • What is the highest and best use of me for the organization at this time? 
  • What do I think it means to be a CEO at this scale, and how does that align with the leader I want to be?

Veronica is just one example of the many leaders I’ve worked with on journeys of growth. The pressure cooker of leadership can strip one’s confidence, or, it can create the possibility of stepping into a more expansive version of oneself.  Leaders who have done the hard work of introspection can hold their own perspective while also exploring and considering the perspectives of others, and sit with uncertainty without rushing to find an answer. They can attend to what’s “emerging” in the organizational system and experiment with ways to nudge it forward. These individuals begin to recognize that being effective is not just about what we do but about how we are in relationship to the change emerging around us.

What about you? What are your practices for reflection and introspection? In what contexts do you see yourself as the most expansive version of you, versus a more reactive version? Who are the fellow travelers who support you along the way?

One thought on “Leadership Development is Human Development”

  1. MMC says:

    a useful insight……

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