Where are our next learning leaders coming from?

In his first column for TJ, Donald H Taylor discusses leadership in L&D. 

L&D needs good generals right now, and sometimes I wonder where they will come from. Credit: Paul Heartfield
Could you describe what you do in three words?
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Recently, I heard the global learning director of a major consultancy do exactly that. Half a dozen of us were having breakfast at Simpsons-in-the-Strand in London, sharing our thoughts on learning with a guest from overseas, in town for a few days.
We were discussing the future of work against the backdrop of Simpson’s oak panelling and substantial fare when she dropped her three words into the conversation.
Two things struck me immediately about what she said. The first was that there was no was no fanfare or build up. She would obviously considered the matter, reached her conclusion about what she did and was simply presenting her conclusions as fact. The other was that it was completely different to what most people would probably have said.
“My job is to inspire and negotiate,” she said. And the conversation continued.
The phrase struck me vividly. How many people in learning and development would be so succinct? And how many would choose those words or something like them – words with no reference to courses, materials or even learning? 
And yet, of course, she was exactly right. Leading is very different to doing. Sadly, the skills we need as leaders are seldom the ones we use in our daily professional practice. This is by no means unique to L&D.
Good sales people are notorious for making poor sales managers. The skills of striking and closing the right deal do not overlap much with the ability to keep your team focused and servicing customers. And sales people often like to be liked – a luxury that managers cannot afford. 
In L&D we have a similar problem. The better a practitioner, the more likely he or she is to have deep skills that will be of little use in leadership. People are often drawn into the profession because they have great design or presentation skills, and sometimes simply because they know a lot about a particular topic. None of this helps much in leading a diverse team for a demanding employer.
Yes, to be sure, a leader in any field needs to be familiar with his or her domain. Alexander, the Great, it was said, was more expert than any of this warriors in his use of spear and sword, but it was his understanding and application of strategy that make him a great general.
L&D needs good generals right now, and sometimes I wonder where they will come from.
The speed and manner of business is changing. The tools we use to learn are more powerful than ever. The availability of information and the speed at which it spreads have transformed over the past few years. 
Against this background, and faced with the prospect of continued, rapid change, the profession needs smart, agile leaders capable of balancing conflicting demands within organisations, while delivering value for them by thinking ahead. 
About the author 
Donald H Taylor is a 25 -year veteran of the learning, skills and human capital industries. Follow him on Twitter @DonaldHTaylor​


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