May 28, 2022 12 min read

Self Development in Leadership

self-development is a critical skill in effective leadership

Who is responsible for the development of leaders and managers? Why should we care anyway?

Development of managerial skill and competence is really up to individuals. ‌‌‌‌Relying on organizations, an MBA degree, or a 45 minute LinkedIn course to turn us into competent leaders overnight is naiveté at best and hubris at worst.

‌‌‌‌Self development is essential to leading and managing in a complex environment.


One of the biggest challenges facing organizations is “how to develop a new breed of senior managers that have the knowledge, the sensitivity, and the abilities necessary to lead organizations throughout the uncertain times ahead” ‌‌‌‌.

– Sumantra Ghoshal, Breck Arnzen & Sharon Brownfield in Nesbitt [1] [2]

Self development as a meta-skill and the answer to complexity

It's cliched to say that change is the only constant in the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment we operate in. An effective and proven way to deal with change and complexity is continuous learning.

Those who are always learning are those who can ride the waves of change and who see a changing world as full of opportunities rather than of damage. They are the ones most likely to be the survivors in a time of discontinuity. They are also the enthusiasts and the architects of new ways and forms and ideas. If you want to change, try learning one might say, or more precisely, if you want to be in control of your change, take learning more seriously.  

‌‌‌‌– Charles Handy in Age of Unreason [3]

Except what does continuous learning look like for leaders and managers? As much as continuous improvement is used in corporate jargon, we don’t find its concepts being implemented broadly at an organizational level when it comes to leadership development, at least not in practice.

Even doing an MBA is only a 2 year commitment in a long career, and most of it is not directly relevant to the day to day realities of managing and leading. What happens beyond that? In a maddeningly complex and changing environment, how do you stay fresh and competitive in a career spanning anywhere from 20 to 40 years?

This is where self development of the leader comes in as the path to continuous learning and evolution. Self development is a leadership meta skill — a skill that enables and empowers the acquisition and development of other leadership skills.

Leaders of modern organizations have to be competent in a range of skills, from the technical and conceptual to those in the human domain. And the ability to constantly evolve themselves in these domains by staying on top of their own learning and development is a core leadership competency in itself.[2]

The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be  those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ‌‌‌‌

– Alvin Toffler [4]

Given its importance, leaders in modern organizations cannot afford to leave their development to the organization or to chance.

Self development of the effective executive is central to the development of the organization. ‌‌‌‌Development is always self development. Nothing could be more absurd than for the enterprise to assume responsibility for the development of a person. The responsibility rests with individuals, their abilities, their efforts.‌‌‌‌

– Peter Drucker in The Practice of Management & The Effective Executive [5][6]

Developing our own complexity through self development

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey in Immunity to Change describe the three levels of what they call “plateaus of mental complexity” – the socialized mind, the self-authoring mind, and the self-transforming mind [7]. With each increasing level, our ability to handle complexity increases accordingly.

The bad news is that most of us are on the lower levels with very few having developed to the higher levels. Developing and increasing our complexity is perhaps the only insurance policy in a VUCA environment in order to ensure our readiness to handle whatever comes our way. Leaders have to ensure that they are constantly working on developing themselves and their organizations to climb up the plateaus of complexity.

Most traditional learning avenues tend to overlook this basic fact.

The field of “leadership development” has overattended to leadership and underattended to development. An endless stream of books tries to identify the most important elements of leadership and help leaders to acquire these abilities. ‌‌‌‌

Meanwhile, we ignore the most powerful source of ability: our capacity \(and the capacity of the people who work for us\) to overcome, at any age, the limitations and blind spots of current ways of making meaning. ‌‌‌‌

– Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey in Immunity to Change [7]

This is akin to a football player who knows the rules of the game but who is physically underprepared when the 350 pound linebacker faces him down. The idea is not whether it is nice or good to have higher levels of complexity, but whether leaders and organizations have the ability to handle situations and realities that they currently face.

There is nothing inherently “better” about being at a higher level of development, just as an adolescent is not “better” than a toddler. However, the fact remains that an adolescent is able to do more, because he or she can think in more sophisticated ways than a toddler. Any level of development is okay; the question is whether that level of development is a good fit for the task at hand. ‌‌‌‌

– Nick Petrie [8]

Anytime we are in what Kegan calls “in over our heads”, it is because there is an essential mismatch between the complexity of the situation we are facing and the complexity of our own development.

The experience of complexity is not just a story about the world. […] It is a story about the fit between the demands of the world and the capacity of the person or the organization. When we experience the world as “too complex” we are not just experiencing the complexity of the world. We are experiencing a mismatch between the world’s complexity and our own at this moment. ‌‌‌‌There are only two logical ways to mend this mismatch—reduce the world’s complexity or increase our own. The first isn’t going to happen. ‌‌‌‌

– Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey in Immunity to Change [7]

Continuous self development is the way to develop this complexity. Some people are naturally good at this while others tend to get forced into it through circumstances. For the rest of us, this needs to be a planned out process if we are to make sure we are not simply relying on the random vagaries of fate.

Responding to the adaptive challenge

Self development of leaders is critical to tackle adaptive challenges that modern leaders and organizations face today.

Leadership would be a safe undertaking if your organizations and communities only faced problems for which they already knew the solutions. Every day, people have problems for which they do, in fact, have the necessary know-how and procedures. We call these technical problems. ‌‌‌‌

But there is a whole host of problems that are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community.

‌‌‌‌– Ronald Heifetz & Marty Linsky in Leadership on the Line

Technical challenges do not necessarily mean low complexity. Designing a bridge or doing a brain surgery are very complex operations but at the same time they do have proven solutions. The nature of the challenge is well understood for the most part.

On the other hand adaptive challenges are situations where we do not have the answers or pre-proven solutions because the situation is still emerging and no known solutions as yet. This is what leaders and managers find themselves in all the time.

Leadership, as seen in this light, requires a learning strategy. A leader, from above or below, with or without authority, has to engage people in confronting the challenge, adjusting their values, changing perspectives, and learning new habits. ‌‌‌‌

– Ronald Heifetz & Donald Laurie in The Work of Leadership [10]

Leaders have to work on their own development and have a good understanding of the landscape otherwise they will be at the whim of whatever ongoing fad their HR department has adopted. For example emotional intelligence is an important but only one of many aspects of development of a leader.

There are other equally important aspects that do not get as much traction in modern organizations based on whatever is in vogue or who did the better job of selling their package to the HR team. One glaring example of missing training in leadership programs is the nuanced use of language.

Rising complexity coincides with lack of training and tools

If learning is the answer, the paradox is that rising complexity of roles also coincides with a lack of training and tools. Modern organizations are highly complex entities with multiple variables, layers, and processes going in and out of the organization.

As you go up in the organizational hierarchy, the complexity involved in the role increases exponentially. And yet, the tools and training that go with the job either stay the same or are almost non-existent. In fact, you will find more number of tools and training at the lower levels than at higher ones.

This is unique to the domain of leadership and organizations.
Outside of the typical MBA and executive courses, there are very limited developmental opportunities for executives and senior level managers.
By contrast, in  fields like professional sports or medicine, the higher one goes in seniority and time, more the amount of training increases.

One reason for this disparity is that with rising organizational hierarchy,  the complexity, ambiguity, and nature of the challenges changes exponentially to the point where no universal training can suffice.

Given the complexity and uniqueness of each organization and the particular situation that leaders find themselves in, there cannot presumably be any training that will gear them for all situations and challenges in the future.

However, what they can do is develop themselves to the point where they can handle anything thrown their way.

The false promise of external solutions in complex situations

Organization-wide training programs can be very hard to keep up with changing times. At best they end up being reactive to the needs of the market and the organization.

On the other hand, if leaders and managers themselves who are at the leading edge of that change can become masters of their own learning, this effectively removes the lag between ongoing changes and programs designed to cope with that change.

How do managers prepare themselves to survive, let alone be successful, in such an environment?

The more traditional avenues of development-MBA degrees, executive education programs, and management workshops and seminars-face the same turbulence. The designers of these educational experiences do their best to predict the kinds of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will be most helpful.

Yet there is an inherent game of “catch up” within this system. ‌‌‌‌By the time these designers understand existing issues and trends, develop cases, write texts, and create workshop designs, a new wave of business challenges appears. Without question, we need a more adaptable, responsive system of helping managers learn.‌‌‌‌

– Marilyn Daudelin in Learning from Experience through Reflection [11]

Daudelin uses the terms “adaptable” and “responsive”  which are also terms from complexity science. And being adaptable and responsive are the only ways one can cope when dealing with complex situations.

Leaders and managers work inside complex systems with their own set of emergent rules and logic. In order to unearth those rules you have to be seeing, listening, and ready to act.

The problem of abstraction

An additional challenge that traditional forms of development suffer from is that of abstraction. Any business case study in a classroom is a highly selective experimental scenario which is never close to real life complexity and resulting consequences.

Business cases and their associated techniques and methods might purport to be universally applicable but that remains a pipe-dream as any manager who has tried to implement these techniques knows.

In today’s world, even the most experienced experts are in over their heads. Adaptive challenges cannot be solved by taking a course, hiring a consulting firm, or copying other companies’ best practices. ‌‌‌‌

– Ronald Heifetz in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership [12]

What might be more helpful is developing the manager’s own level of complexity and learning-systems in order to make them more self- generative and self-correcting so they are better able to to adapt and respond to emerging complex situations.[15]

Without a better understanding of human development—what it is, how it is enabled, how it is constrained—what passes for “leadership development” will more likely amount to “leadership learning” or “leadership training.” ‌‌‌‌

The knowledge and skills gained will be like new files and programs brought to the existing operating system.

They may have a certain value—new files and programs do give you greater range and versatility—but your ability to use them will still be limited by your current operating system. ‌‌‌‌True development is about transforming the operating system itself, not just increasing your fund of knowledge or your behavioral repertoire.‌‌‌‌

– Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey in Immunity to Change [7]

Typical leadership development programs tend to be skewed towards the “informational learning” paradigm of passively transmitting information (new files and programs) as opposed to a “transformational learning” paradigm that actually changes the person and increases their capacity  ( new or updated operating system)

If it were technical problems the answer might have been more information and more knowledge. But this approach does not work in complex challenges where the terrain is primarily unknown and has to be figured out on the fly.

The knowledge and intelligence has to be developed alongside the emerging situation. No amount of additional tacked on information will help in these situations.

As leaders act to include more transformational models in their settings, they will ultimately render quaint our current manifestations of organizational learning—punctuated training programs, executive education, corporate universities, episodic “professional development” events—all of which unwittingly apply the forms and functions of youthful schooling arrangements to an adult realm that is not about “preparation for the journey” but “life along the road.”.‌‌‌‌

– Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey in Immunity to Change [7]

Self development as a competitive advantage

The hard work of developing oneself and the skills involved can be a significant competitive advantage in advancing one’s career. If you have the skills and abilities to develop constantly and stay ahead of the curve it can afford you  opportunities that others might not get.

Howard Gardner likens it to a meta-intelligence that underlies other intelligences:

Perhaps it makes more sense to think of knowledge of self and others as being a higher level, a more integrated form of intelligence, one more at the behest of the culture and of historical factors, one more truly emergent, one that ultimately comes to control and to regulate more “primary orders” of intelligence.

- Howard Gardner in Frames of Mind

This can also be an organizational competitive advantage if implemented at that level. Organizations get pulled upward or downward to the level of their leaders’ development.

What determines which stage an organization operates from? It is the stage through which its leadership tends to look at the world.

Consciously or unconsciously, leaders put in place organizational structures, practices, and cultures that make sense to them, that correspond to their way of dealing with the world. ‌‌‌‌This means that an organization cannot evolve beyond its leadership’s stage of development. ‌‌‌‌

– Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organizations [13]

Ron Heifetz advocates elevating the practices of reflection and continuous learning to an organizational level as a bulwark against adaptive challenges.

Institutionalize Reflection and Continuous Learning: People at all levels in the enterprise must be able to acknowledge what they do not know and need to discover. ‌‌‌‌

– Ronald Heifetz in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership [12]

Self development keeps leadership fresh and nimble

Self development is a potent way for managers and executives to keep themselves fresh and nimble.

Traditional leadership and management development courses and programs can be dry and soul killing. More often than not it is because of the limited perspectives of the person who designed the offering.

Leading and managing in the real world deals with endless complexities in the cognitive and human domains. They can be enduringly fascinating, provided you know where to look and what to look for. Alas, many of us are at the mercy of our HR departments who have better things to do.

The adaptive demands of our time require leaders who take responsibility without waiting for revelation or request. One can lead with no more than a question in hand. ‌‌‌‌

– Ronald Heifetz & Donald Laurie in The Work of Leadership [10]

Self development gives leaders an opportunity to take ownership and accountability for their own development. You are not learning because you have to or you are supposed to. You are learning because you want to, because it is in alignment with your own overarching goals and destinations and also in the interest of your organization.

When you approach learning this way, your results will be drastically different. You are becoming the cause in your life and work rather than an effect at the mercy of circumstances.


In closing, below is an unconventional definition of leadership from Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. [14]

Leadership: The capacity of a system to sense and shape its future. ‌‌‌‌The Indo-European root of the word “leadership,” leith, means “to go forth,” “to cross a threshold,” or “to die.” ‌‌‌‌

That root meaning, which suggests that the experience of letting go and then going forth into another world that begins to take shape only once we overcome the fear of stepping into the unknown, is at the very heart and essence of leadership.

Developing our mental complexity through self development is the best bet leaders and organizations have to “sense and shape” their future by staying ahead of the curve. This is what will prepare and enable leaders and organizations “to go forth” on this uncertain journey of leading themselves and others into new unknown worlds.


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Further reading

How can coaching accelerate this process of self development of leaders? I examine some key ideas in Leadership can be learned but cannot be taught — the role of coaching.

References

  1. A Learning Alliance between Business and Business Schools in California Management Review by Sumantra Ghoshal, Breck Arnzen & Sharon Brownfield.
  2. The Role of Self-Reflection, Emotional Management of Feedback, and Self- Regulation Processes in Self-Directed Leadership Development by John Nesbitt.
  3. The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy.
  4. Quote attributed to Alvin Toffler.
  5. The Practice of Management by Peter Drucker.
  6. The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker.
  7. Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey.
  8. Nick Petrie quoted in Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.
  9. Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy.
  10. The Work of Leadership by Ronald Heifetz & Donald Laurie in Harvard Business Review.
  11. Learning from Experience through Reflection– Marilyn Daudelin.
  12. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership– Ronald Heifetz.
  13. Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.
  14. Theory U by Otto Scharmer.
  15. The terms self-generating and self-correcting are from James Flaherty as he mentions it in Coaching.
Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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