Designing leadership development that works

How much of our attitudes to development and self-improvement are centred around the concept of feeling good or feeling better? Ask a room full of leaders about their biggest challenges and ‘difficult conversations’ will inevitably make the list. When you ask them what improvements they want to make in this area, they will list things like ‘feel more confident’, ‘feel better about doing them’, ‘stop feeling like I’m going to get found out’. The underlying assumption in these feeling-goals is that in order to perform better I have to first feel better. The implicit goal of self-improvement then becomes about changing our thoughts and feelings so that we are more able to do what needs to be done, free from the burden of these troublesome internal problems.

What if this were a false assumption? What if we could do what we need to do even when our minds are full of doubt, low confidence and the imposter syndrome? What if the very action of attempting to change our thoughts and feelings could actually make things worse? The so-called third-wave of cognitive behaviour therapies (such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) are seeking to challenge exactly these assumptions and are seeing some incredible results across a range of areas from clinical therapy, to elite sport and in the corporate sector.

The problem is that they’re waiting until they feel confident about their skills before they start to use them.

In my time heading the Leadership Development team at Urban Utilities (a large water company in Brisbane), we recognised that the major gap in their leadership effectiveness was not leadership skill, it was the avoidance of action. For the most part, leaders know what great leadership is. The problem is that they’re waiting until they feel confident about their skills before they start to use them. So instead of building more skills, the company purposely designed a leadership program that tackled this avoidance issue. You could say it is the Seinfeld of leadership courses, because there is virtually no leadership skill in it. Instead, we spent time helping leaders realise that everybody has the same doubts and insecurities whether you’re the CEO or a front-line leader. We built capacity for people to act in alignment with their values and the organisation’s values, even though those actions are often challenging in the short term. We encouraged people to create some flexible space between their thoughts, feelings and their behaviours so that they can notice the stories in their minds but not be compelled to act because of them.

All this allowed people to realise that feeling good is not the goal – doing what matters as leaders is the goal. Some days we’ll feel good and other days we won’t. That’s normal. That’s what makes us all human. And, of course, the result of focusing on actions rather than changing feelings is that people end up feeling better anyway.

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