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Developing Organizational Leadership (Or, Don’t Send Me to Leadership Training!)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
March 13, 2015

Governmental success in our technological, social-media age depends on people throughout an organization being willing and able to assume leadership when called upon. A team project, a special event, a crisis – these may demand that rank-and-file employees take leadership actions.

If you agree with the foregoing statement, then you will acknowledge the importance of preparing employees for those leadership opportunities. The question is how to do this.

Paddock march

Barbara Kellerman, of Harvard’s Kennedy School, argues in The End of Leadership that leadership programs have failed to create discernable improvements in leadership behavior. She is skeptical about the ability to teach leadership, at least as conceived by what she calls the leadership industry. She argues that if you want to develop capacity to lead in the rank-and-file, the last thing you should do is send them to leadership training. “There is scant evidence, objective evidence, to confirm that this massive, expensive…effort (leadership training programs) has paid off.”

Why doesn’t leadership training work?  Kellerman suggests that changes in our society, culture, education and technology have created organizations that require a professional-centric rather than a leader-centric culture, organizations that focus on individual excellence rather than power and authority.

There is another reason as well:  leadership is an intensely personal experience. One-size-fits-all programs do not reflect these individualities. True leadership grows out of a personal integrity. Parker Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness writes “as we become more obsessed with succeeding…we lose touch with our souls and disappear into our roles.” Leadership training that focuses on roles and models does not speak to the individual passions that create excellence, and perhaps leadership.

What, then, should be done to develop leadership capacity in followers? There are at least four possible approaches.

Mentoring                                          

A mentor is someone who shares wisdom and knowledge with a less-experienced employee. Mentoring means providing more intensive supervision, feedback and performance review in a climate of support – not just determining if the assignment was completed, but evaluating what was best and worst about the assignment, why events occurred as they did, how performance could be improved. Mentoring is a planned effort that requires both supervisor and employee to engage in reflection and collaborative goal-setting. It allows an employee to ask questions and investigate ideas in a safe climate. These behaviors build individual confidence and, ultimately, a personal leadership. And, it does this within an organizational context.

Challenging Assignments

A less-intensive kind of mentoring, challenging assignments provide the opportunity for an employee to test his or her wings before taking full flight. A presentation to an interoffice group is training for a speech to a larger and more formal group. A response to an especially difficult citizen or client is a means of developing empathetic “muscle.” Challenging assignments generally are planned; they are opportunities for the leader to “walk away,” leaving the employee to develop an appropriate response. Walking away signifies to the employee that the leader has confidence in his or her ability to solve the problem or take action. Later, the leader can debrief the situation, allowing the employee to recognize success and learn from mistakes (for it is through learning from mistakes that we grow). Identifying or creating challenging opportunities must take place in an environment of trust, where there is little risk of great harm or error from an employee’s actions and where the employee is not punished for failure.

Performance Reviews

Performance reviews often resemble “teaching to the test.” That is, goals are set and employees are evaluated (graded) on the extent to which they reach those goals (pass the test). Using performance reviews as leadership tools requires conversations with employees about how they expect to achieve goals, as well as how well they met those goals. Leadership-focused performance reviews ask employees to reflect on the manner in which they worked, to suggest more effective ways of meeting goals or even to suggest different goals. Leadership develops in individuals when they believe they have a voice in their lives.

Diversity

Ensuring diversity throughout an organization is a less obvious but just as important means of developing leadership. Diversity encompasses multiple dimensions:  demographic characteristics (race/ethnicity, gender and age), experience and education, perspectives and viewpoints    Diversity is more than simply a recruitment or hiring issue. It is the conscious integration of employees with differing perspectives and backgrounds into the daily life of the organization. Individuals in diverse teams and groups learn from each other in unexpected ways. Employees who have experienced diversity in the workplace are more able to respond to challenges and thus to demonstrate leadership.

Leadership exists throughout every organization. It is just waiting to happen. Employees may only be leaders for a short time, or a single instance, but those are important to the employee, and to the organization. Don’t send out for leadership training; it lives within your organization.


Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who currently lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. Email [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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