Top 5 Principles for Leadership Development 

Guy Sapirstein, PhD

Every company or organization depends on the quality of leadership it currently has, as well as on the development of future leaders and their leadership skills. In addition to structured training programs current leaders at all levels of resilient organizations make an intentional effort to develop individuals who will be future leaders. The reason is that an organizational culture which places value on leadership and leadership skills, elicits better performance from its employees. Since people tend to rise (or descend) to meet expectations, organizations should intentionally practice and emphasize leadership development.

The top 5 principles to encourage the development of leadership are easy to remember and practice:

1.     Delegate don’t Compensate: Every new skill or responsibility has a learning curve associated with it. Let the individual struggle with the skill / responsibility and make it their own, rather than doing it for them. Often it is quicker or more expedient for the more experienced individual to compensate for the lack of experience or expertise of the emerging leader, rather than delegating the task to them, letting them struggle but eventually achieve mastery.  It is important for the more experienced individuals to remember than by compensating rather than delegating they are sending a message of lack of trust in the individual’s capacity to perform.

2.     Teach don’t Preach: The process of leadership development requires the experienced leader to be a teacher who can break down complex tasks into more manageable ones and can adapt his/her style to that of the learner. A preaching style, on the other hand, tends to resemble “announcements” or describing absolute rules. Since the goal is to help the individual internalize the expectations, strategies and techniques that would help them be a more effective leader, the “teacher” needs to meet the “student” where s/he is developmentally, emotionally, and professionally. Simply expecting the “student” to blindly follow a set of rules is not leadership, but rather rote memorization.

3.     Reinforce by recognition and reward: A crucial component of every learning process is the feedback given to the “student” – developing leadership is no different. The best way to ensure certain behaviors, attitudes, and motivations are repeated and sustained is through reinforcement. Reinforcing begins with recognition – noticing and communicating that perception to the individual is extremely powerful. Contrary to popular thinking, the most powerful type of motivation is intrinsic: in other words, if people experience themselves doing something because they want to do it, they feel more motivated, interested, and invested, than if they experience themselves doing something for an external reward. Therefore financial incentives often backfire since they reduce the intrinsic motivation people have and replace it with extrinsic (external) motivation.  External motivation requires constantly increasing the reward. When developing leaders, the most effective reward is the internal sense of accomplishment and effectiveness that comes with learning and mastering new skills.

4.     Prepare, Process, and be Patient: For the process of intentional leadership development to be most effective the “teachers” need to be prepared and conscious of the task they are performing. Simply doing things as you usually would and expecting someone else to be able to “learn through osmosis”, is like trying to read someone else’s shorthand notes – it is confusing and ambiguous. To reduce the confusion, the teacher should think ahead of time about what they are trying to impart to the “student” (knowledge, skills, attitude, etc.). The intentional preparation leads into processing.  This processing is an opportunity for everyone to reflect on what is expected, what is actually happening, and what needs to be adjusted in order to maximize the benefit of the leadership lessons. One cannot overstate the importance of patience in the leadership development process. Remember: in most (but admittedly not all) cases, the outcome will be worth the effort spent.

5.     Listen, Learn, Lead by example: The final principle for developing leadership is that this process is not “one-way”. Effective leaders listen, learn, and ultimately lead by example. If we accept the definition of leadership as “a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal” we must keep in mind the foundations of social influence: it involves other people, motivation, and a goal. Maximizing the effectiveness of the process has to involve learning (by the existing leaders), as well as leadership by example – “do as I say and not as I do” stops being effective very early in childhood. From adolescence (and certainly with adults), we constantly assess role models by matching their words to their behavior. Effective development of leaders and leadership skills necessitates that the two (words and behavior) are consistent.

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