According to Monique Valcour in the November 2020 issue of the Harvard Business Review, “Anyone Can Learn to Be a Better Leader.” In our “on demand” and “instant gratification” world, the expected timeframe is unrealistic. I mean how hard could it be to give direction and pats on the back? That is pretty much what leading is about, isn’t it? It’s a little more complicated than that. Candidly, effective leadership is a craft that takes years to develop.
Monique Valcour says in her article that occupying the position is not the same thing as leading. Agree. Let us examine this capability of leading in more depth. How does someone get thrust into a leadership role? Often the best individual contributor (IC) gets asked to lead a team of equals. That informal leadership role leads to a discussion with a boss about making that a formal role. The IC gets appointed to their first leadership position. The person may or may not receive any formal training before assuming the job. Frankly they don’t know what they don’t know. In the 1980’s a book called “The Lessons of Experience” confirmed that. The author stated that 80% of what people need to know about leadership, they learn on the job. (Initially they learn what not to do by making mistakes). This was what the leaders said about themselves and how they learned to be leaders. While I agree with that premise in theory, I also believe that there are some things that “we” the supervisors and leadership development professionals can do to accelerate those leaders’ development as leaders.
Do individuals who are not strong in their area of technical expertise get put into these new leadership roles? Not likely. They are typically the strongest person technically of the people they are working with and are now being asked to lead. What does the new leader do when a technical problem emerges on their team? Often the leader leads by jumping in and solving the problem. The leader feels good because the problem is solved. The team members are relieved because the problem went away. The bigger issue is that the team (workers minus leader) have not developed the capability to solve this and similar problems going forward. Leading is about helping the team find the solution without doing it for them. It means starting with the end in mind and then consciously deciding on a style of leadership that will allow the team to accomplish the task themselves.
Valcour suggests grounding yourself in intention. Too often new leaders do the ready, fire, aim approach. By being intentional you are stepping back from the situation and consciously deciding what you are going to do as opposed to just reacting. In situational leadership you are thinking about the people, the task, and the situation. These elements in combination (and there are different permutations) will help you determine which style of leadership will create the environment that will allow the team to be successful on the task. You are going to lead someone who has done a task 100 times differently than the person doing the task for the first time. Do we have all the time we need to accomplish an activity or are we under the gun to get the task finished by the end of the day? Different situations require different ways of leading. Learning to lead is easier when the variables you are working with don’t change. With being intentional your leadership can be beneficial if it encourages and promotes leaders to develop their workers to act and solve problems on their own.
What happens when everything changes or at least some of the variables? This is commonly called working in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous)world. This condition of moving parts requires agility. How many of us would have anticipated a world-wide pandemic and entire companies moving from an “in office” to a virtual environment overnight? How about if you were a newly appointed leader when the pandemic hit. Valcour touches on learning agility almost at the end of her article. She doesn’t define it. Hoff’s definition in Learning Agility-The Key to Leader Potential is “Finding yourself in a situation where you have never been before, not knowing what to do and figuring it out.” E.A.S.I-Consult® contends that learning agility can be measured through the Burke Learning Agility Inventory® (LAI®) and developed. Step 1 is you must know what is learning agility. There are nine dimensions and 38 ways it is demonstrated. Step 2 is you need to know how much of each of these capabilities you currently possess. Step 3 is you need to determine what strengths that you have that you are going to continue to use and what capabilities you need to develop. Step 4 is to create a plan for how you are going to do that on your current job. Valcour mentions things like Gathering Information and Feedback Seeking. She doesn’t define them or talk about how to develop these skills. The two Valcour mentions happen to be two of the nine dimensions measured on the Burke LAI. The nine dimension are: 1) Flexibility; 2) Speed; 3) Experimenting; 4) Interpersonal Risk-Taking; 5) Performance Risk-Taking; 6) Collaborating; 7) Information Gathering; 8) Feedback Seeking; 9) Reflecting. While Valcour is well intentioned in aiding new leaders learning to lead, she is not real specific on “how”. E.A.S.I-Consult thinks you need to be more targeted and intentional as you develop your skills as a leader. A key component to being an effective leader is being able to deal with new and first time situations. Learning agility is a key capability for any leader wanting to improve. Knowing one’s learning agility capabilities and using those strengths can help one succeed in an unknown situation. Knowing the capabilities one could use and then actively working to develop them will increase a leader’s effectiveness over time. Back to where we started. Valcour stated that anyone can learn to be a better leader. Other people and changing conditions make proficiency elusive.
McCall, M., (1988). Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executive Develop on the Job. New York, The Free Press.
Hoff, D. (2017). Learning Agility-The Key to Leader Potential. Oklahoma, Hogan Press.
About the Author
David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for E.A.S.I-Consult®. E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.