I’ve come to the conclusion that leadership courses taught in the business world are largely ineffective. They might help people understand leadership as a concept; they might help people to take more effective action as a leader but they do not routinely help people be leaders.
I was a coach at a leadership development event last week, for a group of high-achieving corporate executives whose next step was on to the Director ladder. The tutors provided some fascinating PowerPoint slides with leadership theories, models, frameworks and quotes that were inspirational, and often aspirational. Afterwards, in my small-group coaching sessions, the executives were still asking me as well as one-another what to do with their teams, to become better leaders. They had digested so many recipes yet were still hungry.
How do we develop leadership programmes that change who people are being, rather than what they are doing? After all, leadership is not what you do with the title of ‘Director’. It is not merely a role. We can be leaders in any kind of situation. Leadership is about how you live your life – it is about creating possibilities where others don’t see possibilities; it is about how you act with authenticity and integrity, in service to a cause that is bigger than yourself.
One of the most powerful examples of leadership I once saw was when I was facilitating a strategy session for a group of senior managers some years ago. We were in a glass-and-chrome fishtank of a room, on the hottest Summer’s day of the year. The air-conditioning had broken down and no windows opened. Tempers were frayed, also by the fact that people were required to cut budgets, reduce headcounts and axe resources. There was a distinct lack of cooperation and of creative thinking. In fact, people were increasingly hostile. Then one manager quietly got up, left the room and returned 5 minutes later with a bucket of ice and chilled water. As she quietly poured each person a glass, and smiled at us as she passed the glasses around unobtrusively, the tenor of the meeting totally changed. She prioritised – and demonstrated – personal concern for our well-being, rather than competition for resources. This gesture completely changed the outcome of the meeting.
Such leadership not only required awareness of others’ needs. It also expressed what she loved and valued. It left her, and the rest of us, feeling more complete and fulfilled. Then, and only then, could we be more effective and productive. Think about that - if you enable people to feel complete and fulfilled they will be more successful! She didn’t tell anyone what to do; instead, in the face of discord and dissent, when everyone else was stuck, she accessed her freedom to be in service of others. There was no grand vision of a more efficient system - she simply saw what was needed to move everyone forwards and to change everything.
So if you’re in the leadership development business, go buy some ice and pour someone a glass of water. And think more about who you are, than what you should do to lead…