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Faculty Insights

3 Ways to Help Leaders Develop

By Lisa Yaffe

March 16, 2018

Left arrow with "Born" right arrow with "Made" and man standing between them
Are leaders born or made? Any employee could display a natural sense of confidence, charisma, or a desire to lead; however, research shows that the best leaders possess some combination of self-concept, emotional intelligence, and constructive behavior. The best investments in leadership development will combine technical knowledge and assignments of increasing breadth with opportunities to cultivate the perspectives, attitudes, and behaviors of successful leaders. Here are some ways to attend to the “softer side” of developing leaders.
Mindset matters
Whether we are talking about elementary students or executives, how people see themselves has a dramatic effect on their perception of a situation, assessment of risk and reward, and how they evaluate success. Carol Dweck, in her exploration of mindsets, has demonstrated that people apply—at different times and to different degrees—either a fixed or a growth mindset. When applying a fixed mindset, they value knowledge and expertise. When applying a growth mindset, they value learning and development. People who spend more time and energy on a fixed mindset will focus on being evaluative of themselves and others, limiting the opportunities for novel questions, new information, and development opportunities. Those who spend more time and energy on a growth mindset will process experience—successes and setbacks alike—as learning opportunities, seeing development potential in themselves and others.
When working with leaders on their development, find opportunities to challenge them to shift their energies away from a fixed mindset and towards a growth one. The challenge is one of releasing the need to apply critical, evaluative energy as much as it adopting an acceptance of the journey of growth—forever incomplete and full of potential.
Constructive behavior prevails
Research shows that—across industries and situations—there are patterns of behavior that lead to more effective outcomes. Human Synergistics International® has identified behaviors that are linked to better outcomes, as measured by higher levels of responsibility, higher salary, higher satisfaction with relationships, better health, and less stress. When people think of themselves as individuals who enjoy accomplishing goals, who have confidence and a clear voice about what is important, who partner with others to engage in collaborative work, and who support and invest in others, those individuals will behave constructively and help advance the group towards its objectives. Alternatively, when people feel insecure and becomes either passive to protect themselves, or aggressive to promote themselves, their effectiveness diminishes.
When helping leaders cultivate more effective behavioural patterns, provide them with constructive opportunities to grow. This could be through assessments or formal and informal feedback which will help heighten their self-awareness. They will also better understand how their behavior is either supporting their employees’ goals or the ways in which it is undermining them.

Accountability counts 
There are some leaders who feel they have achieved their leadership level based on merit and what they have achieved in their line of work. They may define their growth as a leader based on their years of experience, industry expertise, or level of formal authority. Leaders who maximize their growth, however, are ones who take responsibility for cultivating and managing their own behavior, independent of their current responsibilities, organization, or leadership development budget. Those who intentionally define the ways in which they want to change their own behavior, and then create the individual, social, and infrastructure support for the new behaviors (see Influencer, Granny and Patterson) will likely see deliberate behavior change.
When helping leaders take accountability for setting goals for behavioral change, challenge them to declare how they will both support (e.g., accountability partners, mentors, physical reminders) and monitor (e.g., regular calendar appointments) their change. Better yet, have them capture their development goals in behavioral terms with supporting mechanisms and monitoring commitments in a written development plan.
Together, these mindset and behavioral shifts not only support and complement investments in developing leaders, but can set leaders on a different trajectory for growth.
Lisa Yaffe is a program director for management and leadership courses at the