As any employee or manager will attest to, and as an extensive body of research supports, good leadership attracts and retains talent, which can lead to greater productivity and increased profits. Poor leadership can lead to high turnover, a negative workplace and an overall dampening effect on business. It’s why we strive for and are attracted to great leaders.
So what makes a great leader? Great leaders have a strong understanding of their organization’s vision, they know the rules and regulations, are strong communicators and listeners, and can respond dynamically.
In other words, they have the cognitive skills of leadership: They know the “what” — rules and regulations, etc. They also have behavioral skills of leadership — or the “how” — leading with strong communication that shows empathy and respect for others in most interactions, including those that are challenging (e.g., performance evaluations or during conflict resolution).
And finally, they have the situational skills of leadership, or the “feel” — an ability to read any situation, think on their feet and adjust.
The best leaders get the most from their employees, attract new ones, instill confidence, build momentum and actually become role models for future great leaders — a winning formula for any organization.
What does this mean to folks seeking a solution for leadership development? These programs must be both prevalent and effective. They must train in cognitive skills, behavioral skills and situational awareness to create any lasting result.
Many learning and development solutions offer basic leadership training and development content. Unfortunately, many also simply focus on a cognitive understanding (the what) of leadership, and less on a behavioral understanding (the how) and broad situational awareness (the feel) that make a great leader.
To understand why this is important, we must turn to the brain.
There are distinct learning systems in the brain. Each system is optimally tuned to specific types of learning, and, critically, the training tools that most effectively recruit each learning system are different.
The cognitive skills learning system has evolved to learn facts, figures and the like (the what). Cognitive skills learning relies on working memory and attention and is mediated by the prefrontal cortex. Processing in this system is optimized when information comes in brief, coherent chunks (often referred to as microlearning), is delivered spaced over time and is tested periodically to ensure storage of the information in long-term memory.
The behavioral skills learning system has evolved to learn behaviors (the how) and does not rely on working memory and attention. In fact, “overthinking it” hinders behavioral skills learning. Behaviors are learned through gradual, incremental, dopamine-mediated reward/punishment feedback learning in the basal ganglia. Processing in this system is optimized when behavior is interactive and followed in real time (literally within milliseconds) by corrective feedback. Behaviors that are rewarded in real time will be more likely to occur again, and behaviors that are punished in real time will be less likely to occur again.
The emotional learning system has evolved to work in combination with the cognitive and behavioral learning systems to add emotional and motivational context to learning that is critical for situational awareness (the feel). Situational awareness is about nuance, but nuance that is critical to success. Where one can have all of the leadership facts and figures available and a strong behavioral leadership repertoire, in the end they must be able to extract the appropriate information and engage the appropriate behavior in each distinct situation. The critical brain regions are the amygdala and other limbic structures. An individual with strong situational awareness can accurately read any situation, adapt quickly and access the behavioral repertoire to engage with the appropriate set of behaviors.
Although the cognitive skills of leadership are important, it is the people skills and situational awareness that set a great leader apart from a good leader. People skills are behavioral skills. They are about what we do, how we do it and our intent. Situational awareness is about applying the right knowledge and behavior at the right time and in the right setting. Although many leadership training and development solutions target the hard skills of leadership, only a few target people skills and situational awareness.
What Does This Mean for Leadership Development Efforts?
The best leadership development requires real-time, interactive feedback training across a broad range of situations. This is why in-person or virtual role-play with real-time interaction and corrective feedback is often the best. Unfortunately, this approach is not scalable. Scalable solutions with true interactivity and the ability to simulate across a broad range of situations will likely require further advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning.
In the meantime, though the majority of leadership training platforms are not truly interactive, many are still rather effective. One approach that is quite effective is to use scenario-based microlearning with video or animation.
Microlearning is effective for hard skills learning because it minimizes cognitive load. Scenario-based learning, when done right, draws the learner into the learning situation in such a way that they can see themselves as part of the scenario, and from multiple perspectives. Together this builds situational awareness. Although not engaging behavior directly, this primes the leader for behavior change.
If you are shopping for a leadership training solution, I urge you to consider vendors that rely heavily on scenario-based microlearning with video or animation. Pay special attention to vendors that also incorporate testing and spaced training as they enhance long-term retention and guard against the brain’s natural tendency to forget.
Talk with vendors about their road map and whether they are actively conducting research and development that is exploring true real-time, interactive feedback options. Vendors that argue against the importance of real-time interactivity should be abandoned in favor of those who recognize and embrace what neuroscience makes clear. The field is moving quickly and AI and machine learning are getting ever closer to embodying real-time interactivity. That is your ultimate goal and should be the ultimate goal of leadership training vendors.