Kicking the habit

Ed Chacksfield offers advice on breaking the cycle of organisational dependency

Whether leaders are ‘born or made’ remains the most enduring debate in development.  Despite the overwhelming evidence that hard work and effort informed by reflective practice prompted personal growth and developments, for many a suspicion prevails that some people have just ‘got it’ and others simply haven’t.

And while behavioural change professionals accept that any complex behaviour, such as leadership, is bound to be both ‘born and made’1 they would emphasise that without the appropriate nurture, any potential nature has bestowed is destined to go unfulfilled.

This article explores some of the means and methods used to nurture professional development – interventions in which reflective learning plays a central role and the use of unfamiliar challenges disrupt the everyday patterns of organisational life. The purpose is to trigger the profound personal change that equips individuals to create new ways of understanding themselves and their role and to forge less dependent professional relationships.

Against a commercial context of increased uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity, we need leaders who are able to make meaning of their world: to be able to adapt, to improvise and to provide direction. Roger Gill identifies four separate, but related dimensions of leadership providing a useful lens through which to view leader development2:

1. The intellectual and cognitive dimension of a leader

This is the ability to perceive and comprehend information; to make balanced judgments, reduce complexity, solve problems and make good decisions.

2. Emotional dimension

This is grouped into the term “Emotional Intelligence” and represents the ability to understand oneself and manage one’s emotions. To be able to realistically assess one’s own strengths and weaknesses and develop goals from this. It also encompasses the ability to read others accurately; to display empathy and recognise and synthesise differences of opinion and personality and also interact with others.

3. Spiritual dimension

This dimension recognises that we have an innate need for meaning and value in what we do. We use a moral compass to guide our decision-making.  Through this we are able to make apparent sense of complexity and thus provide meaning for others.

4. Behavioural dimension

This represents the key skills of being a leader – communicating and expressing oneself through a variety of media (speaking, listening, writing, asking questions) and using body language to convey meaning.

All the four dimensions above demand that an individual not only learns but, more crucially, understands how they can learn and improve on these dimensions. Effective interventions can employ a range of tools and techniques, but formal and guided reflective learning is an essential component.

In addition to these dimensions, we need to also consider the work of Robert Kegan and related constructive developmental theories3 who, in simple terms, argue that the most effective individuals are those who are most personally developed moving towards the interdependent level. Kegan broadly identified three stages of adult development:

Without triggering the development Kegan et al describe, individuals may remain in the dependency area of organisational life placing increasing demands on their own line managers as they constantly seek guidance.

Leader development and the Kolb Learning Cycle

It is helpful to consider Kolb’s learning cycle5 as a template for how one learns how to develop the four dimensions detailed above and move individuals out of dependency towards interdependency.

The Kolb cycle suggests that leadership is developed through being involved in new experiences and then reflecting upon these experiences and making observations with regards to those experiences. From this activity, new ways of thinking and knowledge occurs which can then be used to govern new behaviour. We encourage our delegates to develop their learning around their own leadership, and followership, by placing them in unfamiliar and challenging environments and simulations – places where their usual ways of making sense or normal relationships don’t work and so triggering developmental progress.

Experiential activities

We use a number of experiential activities which put individuals in situations outside of their normal experience. These activities are traditionally described as ‘planks and barrels’, but are typically far more sophisticated in scope and timing and are run in support of theoretical leadership development models. 

Central to the learning around these activities is the skilful ability to extract the learning from the concrete experience of participating in an experiential activity and then move this learning through the abstract conceptualisation element of the model through to a commitment to actively experiment with the learning back in the workplace. This would be done by a thorough review of the activity. Delegates would be asked to consider: What behaviours helped the task move forward successfully? Alternatively, what behaviours stopped the task moving forward?  What does this then mean in terms of my learning? What am I going to commit to doing differently next time I lead and or, indeed, follow another? 

Every experiential activity on a programme needs to be thoroughly reviewed and in doing so, the delegates are shown a mechanism by which they can extract the learning from the day-to-day work. This is especially powerful if it is linked to commitments to keep those behaviours that are working but also change those that are not. Typically, delegates will argue that they got the task done but the key to the learning is how did they go about completing the task?

It is highlighted that we tend to focus on task and outcome but not the process by which we came to that outcome. These activities are particularly powerful when they actively demonstrate how easy it is for the leader to be successful if they are leading a team of effective followers who are proactive in their approach and not constantly dependent on the leader for direction and guidance but help shape the conditions for success alongside the leader.

Role play through business actors

Why is it that we will make the time to prepare for a ‘hard skill’ situation like presenting to a group, but not with so-called ‘soft skill’ behavioural issues? The advocates for role play argue that since leadership essentially revolves around doing and being, then the soft skills can be again practised and reflected upon. The use of business actors to enact a wide range of line manager and inter-colleague conversations which delegates wish to have but are not quite sure how to conduct can be beneficial. This can be from practising coaching conversations where the delegates are required to work through a coaching model to having performance management conversations. 

In addition, one of the most powerful elements of role play is the ‘Forum Theatre’ mechanism, whereby actors play out real life work situations and then allow the delegates to control the actor playing the manager to witness the effects of changes in language, body posture, rapport and process can have on conducting an effective conversation. A business actor in this environment is able to also provide delegates with useful feedback as to how the character they were playing experienced the behaviour of the manager in real time enabling adjustments, replay and reflection to take place. This approach helps [pullquote]teach delegates to learn the power of mental or physical rehearsal before engaging in a challenging conversation[/pullquote] and reinforces the use of a review of how they thought the conversation went. Research indicates that the brain cannot often tell the difference between real and imagined events. Successful individuals in many fields use imagery or practise real or imagined scenarios to achieve peak performance in behaviours and skills. 

Delegates are therefore asked to begin the process of learning to initially prepare a challenging conversation with an individual at work by considering elements such as: What a good outcome from the conversation might be? What type of personality they are? They then practise the conversation with the actor and receive feedback on the impact of their approach, words and behaviour on the outcome of the conversation. They then have an opportunity to run the conversation again. It is through this approach that delegates also learn the power of preparation, review, and feedback and to take this upon themselves without prompt or recourse to others before tackling such conversations in the future.

Self and team analysis through feedback

Embedded within any effective programme syllabus of development and discovery should be an opportunity to reflect on oneself and ones’ relation to a team. An excellent mechanism for this is 360-degree feedback through which anonymous feedback is obtained from direct reports, peers and one’s manager as to how they perceive a delegates’ performance against a set of competencies. 

These may be compared with one’s own perception of performance. This can be a very useful benchmark of development if a 360- degree survey is administered before and after a programme or other personal development. The benefits of such an approach is that it offers an element of a reality check as to the perceptions of others. If there is a definite correlation in feedback regarding certain behaviour then the manager may wish to look at this more closely. In the same vein, individuals within a team may also complete a survey and have this compared with the perceptions of other stakeholders to highlight any development needs and strengths.

Another useful mechanism with which to enhance self-awareness is through the use of psychometric tools such as Hogan, 16 Personality Factors (16PF), Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI). Psychometrics can be used to categorise one into a type such as MBTI or examine sets of discrete traits such as warmth, agreeableness and openness to change (16PF). Psychometric tools use a neutral, objective language to point towards tendencies in behaviour and their underlying motivations which are difficult to unearth by simply watching someone. They are a useful springboard for wider discussions on personality tendencies; balance in approach at work and understanding of differences between people and the toleration that comes from this knowledge. 

Action Learning Teams

The reason Action Learning is so effective in leadership development is that it empowers action in the form of experimentation – ‘having a go’, and then learning through subsequent reflection. The fundamental belief of Action Learning is that ‘expertise’ actually emanates from inside the team and peer learning and advice which is surfaced through facilitation. 

Work-based problems are tackled through open questions and honest enquiry and solutions found through active experimentation and subsequent reflection. For example, concentrate on building impetus and critical mass at the outset through the rapid construction of diversely-composed Action Learning Teams (ALTs).

From the moment in the very first session when we ask the participants to form themselves into diverse ALTs, ‘teams’ then becomes the key learning, networking and delivery/action mechanism, and the rest of the programme is designed to provide them with multiple opportunities to develop world-class high performance team characteristics. Facilitation of the ALT will seek to shift the team from being dependent on the facilitator to making decisions for themselves, to taking balanced risks and having a can-do approach.

Coaching and mentoring schemes

The most powerful mechanism to begin the shift in mind-set of individuals is the use of both coaching and mentoring schemes, as long as [pullquote]the goal of any mentor or coach is to build an independent to interdependent mind-set which no longer requires another for continued discussion and guidance[/pullquote]. Many use these terms interchangeably but the difference between two valued leadership development mechanisms is important to delineate. 

Coaching in modern parlance believes in learning through non-directive open questioning of the coachee. The solutions, the responsibility and accountability for action all lie with the coachee. Pure coaching can provide much needed psychological space for the exploration of the business leader’s reality and heightens awareness of issues that are important to grow.

This relationship tends to be for a shorter time span than mentoring. Mentoring is about the developmental relationship between a junior and a more senior individual and the imparting of knowledge to the junior. This relationship is longer but should always seek to develop and move the individual to interdependency. Clearly both of these could be used to unpack the outputs of psychometric tools, 360-degree feedback and supports the transfer of learning and the move towards behavioural change.

Programme quick-win projects or work-based challenges

In order to help in the development of leadership and followership, projects can be very effective in the learning journey. Heading up a real time business pay-back project as part of the development curriculum whereby the ALT use their collective talent to lead change by heading up a special project that will save money or grow their business further. 

Alternatively, being deliberately placed in charge of increasingly complex work-based challenges can harness and enable the development of more responsible and responsive behaviours that organisations so crucially require. What is crucial is the opportunity to reflect upon the key encounters, learnings and experiences and what they have meant to the individual. Placing individuals in appropriate stretch roles will build resilience and performance in those wishing to learn more about their own leadership capabilities. However it requires individuals involved in a project to recognise that sometimes getting things wrong can be a benefit if it is learnt from and used as a springboard for further learning.


“All indications are that multiple methods will produce the most effective…learning.  No one method has the sole answer.”6 These are only some methods through which development can be fostered and dependency disrupted and eradicated. As John Burgoyne claims, a multiple approach will stand more chance of appealing to different learning styles and personalities. 

However, the single most important element in the development of leadership and followership behaviours is the attitude of the individual and their desire to understand that leadership is learning. The journey towards effective, interdependent working never ends it simply becomes more nuanced: the truly interdependent leader is able to embrace the ambiguity and diversity of world views, seeing them not as problems to be resolved, but opportunities to transform people and organisations for the better.


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