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How Do We Train for High-impact Public Leadership?—Part Two

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

By Bill Brantley
August 8, 2022

In early 2016, I applied for a job at a federal agency as their leadership development program manager. I wrote in the cover letter I had little experience in leadership development but had extensive knowledge in creating innovative training. My argument was that my lack of leadership development experience and my dissatisfaction with traditional federal government leadership development programs meant that I wouldn’t replicate the same old leadership training. Instead, I had new ideas for improving leadership development training.

It was a bold statement that didn’t work because the hiring authority suggested I drop my application for the position. Sufficiently castigated, I sought other training jobs. I also studied leadership theory and development intensively, eventually earning a certification in designing leadership development training programs.

As part one of this article describes, I reinvented a supervisor certification program using innovative training techniques. However, my proudest career moment was when Training Magazine recognized me in 2019 as one of 25 national Emerging Training Leaders for my work on reinventing the supervisor certification program.

Since then, I have continued to find new ways to develop leaders. For example, along with my work as a leadership development specialist in the federal government, I’ve created a graduate course in project management leadership and an undergraduate course in leadership communication. In addition, based on over five years of leadership training, I’ve developed a highly experiential method to help people learn to be high-performing leaders.

The Leader Habits

Martin Lanik, the author of The Leader Habit (2018), writes that good leadership consists of twenty-two core skills. The skills fall into two major areas: “Getting Things Done” and “Focusing on People.” Lanik developed a program where students work to make leadership skills an automatic habit. For example, students practice a leadership skill, such as managing priorities, for a few minutes each day until the skill becomes automatic.

In my project management leadership course, I had the students pick a leadership skill to practice for two weeks. Each day, the student would consciously practice the skill and write a brief reflection describing their success in using it. In a sixteen-week course, the students would practice seven-to-eight leadership skills. The positive transformation of the students’ leadership abilities was amazing as the students grew as leaders. I have adopted the leadership habits approach in other academic courses and professional training.

Leaders Deserve Better

Jennifer Mackin’s book, Leaders Deserve Better: A Leadership Development Revolution (2020), has greatly influenced how I approach leadership development training. Mackin is a noted expert in leadership development with over 25 years of experience in leadership training. She explains how traditional leadership training fails to properly develop leaders because the training doesn’t measure the impact of the training. Mackin created the Leader Development Maturity Tool, which consists of Four Drivers of Leader Development Success: “strategy connectedness,” “leader-led development,” “practice and reinforcement” and “face-to-face development.”

I don’t entirely agree with her perspective on “face-to-face development” because there are successful methods to replicate the in-person experience online. However, I see the merit in having senior leaders mentor and coach new leaders as the neophyte leaders practice leadership skills in role-playing and simulations. For example, a crucial part of the supervisor certification program redesign was using case studies to help the new supervisors learn to analyze a work situation and devise the appropriate leadership strategy to resolve the problem.

Leadership Development in the Hybrid Era

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review (“What Leadership Development Should Look Like in the Hybrid Era,” June 1, 2022) reinforces what I learned in building impactful leadership development training programs. Julian Birkinshaw, Maya Gudka and Steven Marshall describe research they conducted over the last three years to create a more effective training process for leaders. Their training rests on three actions: sense-making, experimenting and self-discovery. Finally, the participants reflect on the lessons learned in the classes, test new leadership approaches in their workplace and reflect on how they are growing as leaders.

Birkinshaw, Gudka and Marshall also discovered four principles in designing leadership development programs. The first principle is iteration which is to teach new ideas in small batches so participants can experiment with the new concepts before moving on to the next idea. The second principle embeds the training into the participants’ daily work while the third principle encourages experimentation with new concepts. Finally, the fourth principle is to provide learning support through coaching and mentoring.

Enhancing Leadership Development with Organizational Digital Twins

A digital twin of the organization is the key to enhancing leadership training. Students can work with simulations of the organization (or digital twin) to determine how their leadership decisions will affect organizational outcomes. Common and uncommon leadership simulations can be presented to the student who uses sense-making, experimentation and self-discovery to grow as a leader. In this way, training programs can avoid the shortcomings of the leadership filtration system while better linking leadership skills to beneficial organizational outcomes. Practicing leadership skills in a safe environment is how you grow high-performing leaders.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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