My Latest Leadership Development Mistake

I’m in the business of developing leaders.
I think about it…a lot.
I read about it…a lot.
I talk about it…you get the idea.

Some of you who read my posts also have an interest in leadership, whether it’s developing your own or other’s.

That’s why I think it’s extremely important that I share with you the mistakes I make in the process. I think we can all learn from each other. Leadership development isn’t an exact science, but there are some best practices we learn along the way. I tend to be the kind of person who wants to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

This year, I started a new leadership program on our campus called The LeadershipLab. It was a monthly training event that included very practical action steps (labs!). The goal wasn’t just teaching. It included tangible training. I wanted students to experiment with what they were learning. The philosophy (which I consider foundational) is that people learn best to lead by leading. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the involvement or buy-in that I was anticipating. After the initial hype, participation began to dwindle. While feedback was always positive, students weren’t as engaged. I’ve asked a lot of questions and had a lot of conversations.

Then I realized my mistake: I didn’t do a good job of connecting the need for leadership development with a student’s felt need for leadership development.

I work from the assumption that every student will find a situation where he or she must act as a leader. While a student may agree with that assumption, he or she may not see leadership development as a priority. They can see it’s a good idea, but it’s not a good investment…right now.

Schools like Westpoint do a tremendous job at developing leaders and students (cadets) there buy in immediately. That’s because people die in the face of poor leadership. There is a tangible, if not palpable, sense of the importance of becoming the best leader one can be…right now.

While that may be an extreme example, it does point to the underlying notion that we put more effort into the areas where we feel the greatest need or see the greatest consequence. For example, I think it’s a good idea to learn Spanish. But it’s not at the top of my priority list. It would move up the list a lot quicker if I were moving to Mexico. My circumstances would change my priorities.

It’s a mistake to offer leadership development and not also demonstrate all of the why’s and how’s that being a better leader will make in a person’s life and the lives of those around them. I just assumed that students already knew it was important.

One of the Post It notes I have next to my desk asks a simple question: What happens if you don’t do your job well? It’s a question that encourages me to reflect on the level of excellence I’m putting into my work. It confronts me with the consequences of mediocrity.

My job isn’t simply the transfer of principles and practices of good leadership. It has to be more than that. I must tap into some portion of their inner motivation and heart that causes them to confront the question: What happens if I don’t lead well?

Anyone else experience this? What did you do to assist others in making the connection and moving leadership development higher up on the priority list?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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5 thoughts on “My Latest Leadership Development Mistake

  1. Tim,
    You bring up good points!
    We sometimes focus on the how more than we focus on the why. I try to make the why a big part of my lectures to try to further engage my audience and to open the discussions.

    I once was asked to give an impromptu lecture on safety. I had 5 minutes to prepare for the lecture. The first thing I did was walk into the training room and write in big letters on the whiteboard “Complacency Kills!”. Now one would think this was just for my audiences sake. It actually was a twofold message, to let my audience know that if they became relaxed about safety it could kill them. It also reminded me that I needed to do a great job at explaining the whys and hows of safety. That I couldn’t be complacent about the subject I was teaching either.
    Yes we have to stay diligent especially in areas we take as second nature as it is easy for us to overlook the significance.
    Keep up the good work.

    • Joseph.
      Thanks for the reply. I love your example. At some level, death is a great motivator. I also think people will invest in something where they have some type of emotional attachment. I’m still working through what that looks like in a training environment.

  2. Thank you for this. I am really inspired by the question “What if I don’t lead well?” As it stands, I can see all the problems that would persist if I didn’t lead well.

    • Good to know Zac. It’s a good question. I don’t know how many times I’ve wondered if things would have turned out differently had someone asked that type of question on the front end of an endeavor.