In a Social Age, leaders must move away from fitting individual development to external standards, so they can undertake personal journeys of discovery and growth, write Sudhanshu Palsule and Frank Guglielmo
Picture the scene in a simulation exercise called “dangerous opportunities” on an executive education programme, with senior leaders from a top pharmaceutical company. The leaders are in an “immersion room”, being confronted by an actor, posing as a journalist. He is making allegations regarding their company about which he plans to write. When asked for a response, one of the leaders re- acts sharply and embarks on a lengthy explanation about how he will take the matter to the executive commit- tee, followed by the company council and the in-house legal department, to formulate an appropriate response. While we should bear in mind that this is a simulation exercise, the individual’s reaction is based on several assumptions: one, that the situation will remain static while he undertakes the steps he has described; two, that reverting to the hierarchy is the appropriate way of going forward; and three, that the journalist is on the “other side of the camp” and must be confronted with distrust and suspicion.
The Social Age
The problem with the approach described above is that it is out of touch with an environment in which communication happens instantaneously, information is created socially, multiple constituencies are joined together by social networks and where everyone (figuratively) carries a megaphone. We call this new reality the Social Age and it is already starting to pose a challenge
to the static and insular world view that has shaped our routines and behaviours at work, our interactions with the external world and even the structure of our organizations. The impact of the Social Age on how we lead our organizations is huge.
Any leader who wants to remain relevant in the Social Age has to pay close attention to the following:
- Globally-connected networks and continuous disruption
- Information being increasingly produced and consumed socially
- Frictionless communication leading to unparalleled transparency
Our organizations are under increasing scrutiny from employees, stakeholders and customers who possess three unprecedented resources: ubiquitous access to social information; an expectation that they can engage anyone in conversation; and availability of cheap and fast communication that allows them to react to events in real time.
What impact does the Social Age have on the way leaders have to turn up and lead? In our research for the book, The Social Leader, we found that authenticity, passion and purpose trumped most other leadership capabilities.
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The problem is that the way we develop our leaders in most organizations is not designed to grow authenticity, passion and purpose. Much leadership development is still stuck in a prototypical mechanism of retro- fitting individual development to an external standard. We find this is becoming outdated.
Prototypical approach to leadership development
Consider the following prototypical process for ensuring an adequate pipeline of leaders. The emphasis relies heavily on the concept of assessment.
The process typically begins with the establishment of a standard, frequently through the creation of a “leadership competency model”. This model is often developed using inter- views with senior executives. At its worst, it is simply bought off-the-shelf.
An assessment process is then used to compare individuals against the competency model. From these assessments, a “gap” between the individual and the standard is identified and “development priorities” created. These are used by the individual to create a development plan, and by talent development departments to direct and justify various leadership- training programmes.
The individual is encouraged, assigned or required to engage in activities intended to close the gap by introducing new skills or changing the person’s approach to various leader- ship situations, to be in line with the competency model.
We have identified two significant challenges inherent in this approach to leadership development in the Social Age: the challenge of creating a fixed standard, and the challenge of authenticity.
With respect to the challenge of creating a fixed standard, we find that competency approaches often rely on three assumptions that are rarely true in real life:
●● Assumption of constancy: the requirement that a static state exists for the role or job, i.e. the identified competencies do not evolve, or do so within a very limited tolerance
●● Assumption of normativity: the requirement that there is one best way to succeed at the job or role
●● Assumption of sufficiency: the requirement that all competencies are mastered and that no other actions on the part of the individual can compensate for deficiencies A more profound challenge is the challenge of authenticity. The implicit assumption is that improving an individual’s capacity to lead is based on changing or re-directing his or her behaviour. Unquestionably, an individual’s behaviour is the manifestation of their ability to lead. However, to us, helping a person acquire a new pattern of behaviour that is inconsistent with “who they are” as a person is not a recipe either for long-term success or personal fulfilment.
With these two limitations in mind, we propose a discovery-based approach to helping leaders grow.
Discovery-based leadership growth
The essential difference between the process of discovery and the mechanics of “plugging a gap” is that the former sticks better. Discovery generates growth intent in a person, which leads to what we refer to as “mindful seminal experiences”. To “dis- cover”, or to take the cover off a part of oneself that was hitherto closed to awareness, is a process of awakening, and of growing that part productively.
Discovery manifests itself through a process that we call “the personal narrative”: the story and the lens through which we see ourselves. Leaders can learn to construct their narrative based on their own “discovery” and from the feedback they receive from others. Once they have their personal narrative, it becomes the backbone of their development process.
1. Discovery – the hero’s journey: All interesting narratives have a story- arc: we borrow one called “the hero’s journey” to help individuals under- stand their personal narrative. Joseph Campbell, in his book A Hero With A Thousand Faces, describes what he termed “the hero’s journey”. In Campbell’s view, the hero’s journey is the common structure that underlies almost all mythology from the stories of Osiris and Prometheus to Anakin and Luke Skywalker. In the hero’s journey, a hero is called to adventure, struggles with accepting this call, receives aid, meets with a series of trials, atones for his or her past, receives a great gift or power and returns home amid additional trials where he or she uses this new gift or power for the good of all.
Campbell’s eloquent 17-stage model is too detailed for our purposes. We have created a six-part learning arc as follows:
- Seminal situation: A significant or defining career event
- Struggle: This seminal situation causes difficulties that have not been encountered before
- Help: Someone or some event provides new skills, learning or insight to help overcome the struggle
- Trial: The new skills, learning or insight are put to the test
- Success: The leader overcomes a set of obstacles and deals with success within the context of the current challenge
- New state: The leader now has a new set of learning, skills or insight to apply broadly
A seminal situation is one in which the leader confronts a problem with the following characteristics:
- Novelty – the experience of being thrust suddenly into a situation that demands “mindfulness”. We find ourselves struggling at first just to understand the nature of the challenge and are even at a loss as to how to proceed.
- Energy – seminal situations are deeply engaging in which we find ourselves struggling but motivated by the struggle.
- Behaviour innovation – seminal situations are those in which the proper path is not laid out before us. We are required to walk it in our own way, innovating as we go. The individual struggles with new challenges that will not yield to their normal way of doing things. This opens the door to some person, some thing or some circumstance helping the individual expand their thinking about how to solve this challenge. The individual goes forward to resolve the problems inherent to this “seminal situation” by “trialling” new approaches. Based on their success in dealing with this situation, the expanded capabilities can be applied to a wider range of scenarios. This learning arc might occur over the course of a conversation, a day, a project or many years. The figure above outlines the learning arc. By looking across the learning arc from a number of different seminal situations, it becomes possible to “dis-cover” a pattern – the themes of a leader’s personal narrative. These themes are even more apparent when multiple people describe the same story arcs from their own vantage point – perhaps in a set of 360o inter- views. These themes demonstrate where the leader has been most productive and where he or she has been non-productive.
The tenets of social leadership
Uncovering themes from these learning arcs is easier when the stories from a leader’s personal narrative can be placed in a framework. We suggest the following framework:
Mindfulness – the capability to maintain and act on four types of awareness: temporal, situational, peripheral and self
Proactivity – the belief that one is in control of one’s own actions and seeing oneself as able to influence events rather than being dragged along by them Authenticity – engendering in others a belief in your own credibility; the ability to build personal trust in a relationship and confront disagreement and competing points of view positively
- Openness to learning, growth and ambiguity – the capacity to act, thrive and learn from situations that are complex, novel and ambiguous
- Social scalability – fluidly communicating separately and jointly to one individual, a small group and the entire organization the external standard to which they are held up.
But in the discovery-based process, where the primary criterion is success in addressing leadership challenges, and the standard is the individual’s own capabilities, growth intent needs to be explicit.
The individual leader, as part of the growth process, purposefully and mindfully identifies the aspects of their own characteristic leader- ship approach that have made them productive in the past and have the opportunity to be extended or enhanced. Similarly, they intention- ally identify the characteristic non- productive conversations, actions and behaviours they will diminish.
3. Mindful seminal experiences
Seminal situations are set up by significantly changing either the content, the context or the scope of a leader’s responsibility. Also, by limiting the constraints on what they can do to succeed, ensuring there is something real at stake and making sure they will know if they are succeeding along the way. Mindful seminal experiences are those that the individual approaches with a learning mindset and an expectation of growth and change.
creating mindful seminal experiences We now introduce a few changes to this learning arc map to turn it into a proactive growth tool. Have a look at the learning arc on page 65.
Prospective learning arc:
Seminal situation: What significant situations can I involve myself in?
Struggle: For me, what will be the main leadership challenge(s) in this situation?
Help: Where will I find help? What productive theme will I use that I may not previously have contemplated in this type of situation; what unproductive themes will I avoid? What assistance will I need and from where will it come?
Trial: The purposeful conversations, actions and behaviours I will engage in to overcome challenges along the way
Success: What did I do that was productive? Unproductive? Why?
Expand: How can I take what I successfully did in this situation and use it now in other situations. What are those situations?
Trialling fresh approaches
Seminal situations are defined, in part, by the need for “behaviour innovation” – having conversations, taking actions and using behaviours that are not normally within your comfort zone. Leaders begin to consider alter- native conversations, actions and behaviours that can be used authentically to compensate for the past lack of success in this situation. The next stage is to monitor success.
This is about feedback, plain and simple. There are four critical questions to be asking along the way: “what did I do?”; “how were my actions perceived,?”; “did I accomplish my immediate goal?”; and “what were the ramifications of my actions?”
The answers to these questions should lead to continuing or adjusting the types of conversations, actions and behaviours in which you are engaged.
With the recognition of the conversations, actions and behaviours (CABs) that have proved effective and the patterns within a situation that make these CABs relevant, this productive approach can now be expanded to many new situations.
But once again, aren’t standards important? We began this article by suggesting that external standards of leader- ship are harming, rather than helping, develop leaders in the Social Age. In a recent conversation, the head of talent development for a large cloud computing company in the US city of Palo Alto forcefully – and correctly – noted that organization context is critical and impossible to ignore when considering leaders and leadership development. Of course we agree.
The issue is not about standards per se, but what the standards are about. The standards that companies can and should set are outcome standards – the results they are expected to deliver, the challenges they are expected to address and the values they are expected to engender. These outcomes define an organization’s context and are quite legitimate and important standards against which to judge a leader’s success. The danger zone is trying to define how the leader should arrive at these outcomes. The idea that there is one ideal path, and that this is the path that has been walked by successful leaders in the past, is an idea that, perhaps, we need to move beyond.
Sudhanshu Palsule is an award- winning educator and CEO, and Frank Guglielmo is managing director of Park Consulting. They are authors of The Social Leader: Redefining Leadership for the Complex Social Age
The Social Leader: Redefining Leadership for the Complex Social Age, Frank Guglielmo and Sudhanshu Palsule (2014). Bibliomotion Books + Media, Boston, MA
The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, 3rd ed (2008), Novato, Calif, New World Library
We strongly recommend reading either A Hero With A Thousand Faces or The Power of Myth to truly understand this powerful concept of “monomyth”