Leadership has traditionally been seen as a skill of individuals. Yet much of the focus in leadership development remains on the needs of the organization, even though professional growth requires catering to individual employees. Executives and their subordinates at all levels need to be constantly growing in order to meet the ever-changing needs of their environments. Learning leaders should therefore continually develop new programs and activities that will attract new members and retain existing ones. This requires learning leaders to think creatively and develop new and innovative ideas that will enhance the performance of individuals and encourage growth.
“Organizations love to talk about organizational development, and they love to talk about strategy, but the missing link is often the individual,” said Michael Gelb, author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. “The notion of the learning organization has become very popular over the past 20 years. It’s an idea that an organization can be flexible, agile, adapt and change to anticipating the needs of its customers and clients. However, the missing link of the learning organization is the learning individual. Unless every individual in an organization has an understanding of the nature of the learning process and how to accelerate their own learning, the learning organization remains a theoretical construct instead of a practical reality.”
In his book, On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis states that leaders too often think of growth in quantitative terms. They think that when employees’ bodies stop growing, their minds stop growing. They don’t feel that focusing on individual development will provide results, so they focus on group and organizational development instead. But, as Bennis asserts in his book, intellectual and emotional growth don’t have to stall — nor should they. Employees that are prospective leaders differ from others in their appetite for knowledge and experience. As their responsibilities widen and become more complex, so too do their means of understanding. Learning leaders who establish programs catering to these individuals are enhancing and protecting their human capital.
“A good learning leader draws out an employee’s individualism,” said Michael Stewart, president of management consulting firm Work Effects. “To do that you need to capitalize on core virtues — beneficial partnerships, aligned motions, sustained determination, intellectual flexibility and character. If a manager just uses a linear problem-solving skill set, they’re less likely to be able to draw in the insight, passion, skills and opportunity drivers of an employee, as well as gain any substantial commitment to execute whatever mutual approaches to projects they’ve agreed upon.”
Professors Shung Jae Shin at Washington State University and Jing Zhou at Rice University sampled 290 employees and their supervisors for their 2003 study, “Transformational Leadership, Conservation, and Creativity.” They concluded that transformational leadership was positively correlated to follower creativity, and argued that situational and personal factors jointly contribute to employees’ creativity.
Through creative facilitation and development, leaders can help employees develop new leadership habits and skills that are better suited to an adaptive and innovative organization.
“Too often, the transactional thinking or linear thinking that can be associated with various training programs or the way we’re taught to solve problems really gets in the way,” Stewart said. “It only uses A + B = C kind of thinking, as if there’s only one right answer. When a person uses their own color commentary and is allowed to develop based on their individuality, their virtues start to become revealed. By being aware of those basic virtues, a person can make small tweaks or adjustments so that they can enhance their ability to build those relationships and create better outcomes.”
According to Gelb, it’s not just a theoretical notion that employees should learn. Leadership development is about actually teaching people how to learn and how to accelerate the process of learning.
“Leaders need to have curiosity about how to best continually develop new programs and activities that will attract new hires and retain existing ones,” he said. “Frequently what they do is just think what the competencies are to make more widgets more effectively. It can’t simply be about competencies. It has to be about creating an environment that will inspire people to go beyond what we’ve already thought of in order to delight customers and yet remain a proper learning organization.”
Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.