What does it take to become an inspirational leader? Practice, practice, practice.

“I don’t understand it. We sent him to an expensive leadership development program, but I haven’t seen any improvement in his approach to leadership.” 

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, this frustration and confusion is a common refrain in many organizations. While there is certainly individual variation in the full explanation for why this occurs, one of the common denominators is a flaw in the design of some leadership programs. Simply put, many programs focus on the acquisition of leadership knowledge rather than focusing on the practice of building leadership skills.

While the study of leadership can be compelling and engaging, it is not the same as – nor does it result in – an improvement in leadership capability and behavior.

We wouldn’t want to go to a physician who went to the lectures and read the books, but who never built their skills through extensive clinical practice. Why are we surprised, then, that a theoretical leadership development program would fail to yield practical skills? We should be more surprised at the number of leadership programs that do not have the equivalent of that extensive clinical practice built into the curriculum.

To build leadership skills, it is critical to create a program that strives to help participants not only learn about leadership, but to actually embody leadership. 

Successful leadership programs share seven key features:

  1. Tools that increase self-awareness. Self-awareness is the foundation of any successful skill building endeavor. If individuals do not know where they are at the start of the learning process, it is challenging for them to know, and to be invested in, the aspects of learning and behavior development that are most relevant and important for their success. To help leaders gain this critical self-awareness, use assessment tools that capture deeper, more integral aspects of individuals, such as motivation, as well as one that assesses current leadership behavior patterns, including observer feedback.
  2. Practical models and frameworks that support behavior change and skill development. Just as cooking is made easier with clear recipes, the development of leadership is made easier by utilizing practical frameworks that provide guidance and direction for behavior.
  3. Peer mentoring. One of the best sources of insights and ideas to work through leadership challenges is for leaders to share them with peers and seek their counsel. One of the best ways for leaders to gain confidence is by sharing their knowledge, insights, and experiences with their peers.
  4. Many opportunities to practice, reflect… and practice some more. Leadership is an embodied endeavor. It is demonstrated through communication, expression, and actions. As we say at MRG: “If it is not visible to others, it is not leadership.” To bring about successful changes in behavior and skills, individuals need the opportunity to practice behavior modification, receive feedback, reflect on their own experiences and goals, and to then repeat the cycle… again and again.
  5. Ongoing coaching. Ultimately, the test of the effectiveness of skill development and behavior change can only occur in the context of the individual’s work setting. Coaching outside of the classroom provides the opportunity for reflection, dialogue, feedback, and idea generation to help facilitate the application of program learning.
  6. Organizational and managerial involvement and commitment. Behavior change and skill development are ultimately the responsibility of the individual leader. But organizational and managerial support is necessary if meaningful and sustained progress is to be made. The organization is responsible for providing resources and for building and maintaining a culture where effective leadership and career-long learning is expected, supported, and reinforced. The manager, in turn, must provide ongoing encouragement, feedback, and coaching to support the individual’s continued development in the leadership role.
  7. Individual motivation. Leadership is a challenging endeavor. It requires commitment, an ongoing willingness to learn, and a fundamental belief in the importance of effective leadership for individuals, teams, and organizations to thrive. The best leadership development efforts in the world will only succeed when participants are motivated to participate and to do the hard work of building leadership capabilities.

We can all point to examples of ineffective – perhaps even damaging – leadership. And we can all identify effective leadership that, in some cases, is even inspiring.

In order to achieve inspiring leadership, motivated individuals with organizational and managerial support need to commit to learning, reflecting, and practicing throughout their careers. It’s hard work. But it’s also the only path to developing a level of mastery in the area of leadership.


About the author

As president of MRG, Tricia uses her penchant for bursting into song and bringing out the best in people in approximately equal measure.

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