Man's silhouette, thinking

CEOs must be more honest about wasteful ‘leadership’ initiatives

All the education and training in the world does not lead to the potential for leadership

By Connell Fanning and Assumpta O’Kane

The fallacy that the capability for ‘leadership’ can be learnt by acquiring a requisite set of skills is still widely pursued in the form of ‘leadership development’ initiatives despite CEOs knowing that these are a waste of time and money.

So why do they persist in ‘investing’ in such activities?

There are many reasons best known to CEO’s themselves. However, a main one, we suggest, is the fear of missing out: when everyone else is seen to be doing it, they cannot be blamed for going along, while not going along brings risks of being asked why are ‘we’ not doing it like the others?

The ultimate reason for this lack of confidence is a lack of clarity about the phenomenon of ‘leadership’ in human affairs.

If, as we argue in The Leadership Mind (TKC, 2002), ‘leadership’ is insight commensurate with the complexity of the world in which we live, then it cannot be taught or learned but, as Robert Kegan says, “the consciousness that gives rise to insight can be developed”. The capability for ‘leadership’ must be developed as this development requires transformation of how we think. Otherwise, to quote Kegan, it is “like trying to create apples without growing apple trees”. [i]

Getting the necessary clarity about developing ‘leadership’ capability can start with being clear about the distinction between ‘education’ (including training) and ‘development’ so that the right goal can be pursued in the right way.

‘Education’ and ‘development’ are often used interchangeably. Most of the time this does not cause a problem. Many people, however, often use ‘development’ unthinkingly as a throwaway word without any real meaning, or one that is undifferentiated from ‘education’ or ‘training’ in so-called ‘soft skills’, often leading to confusion as to what is actually being addressed in executive and professional programmes.

Briefly, we take ‘education’ as being about cognition and knowledge and ‘training’ about mastering skills and techniques. In contrast, ‘development’ is about the capability for meaning and truth making and is about how we create our realities out of our everyday experiences.   

‘Leadership’ is about personal development. This requires moving away from the dominating influence of our formal education and training, where we place too much emphasis on acquiring knowledge or on analytical skills at the expense of our ‘whole person development’. We need to be clear that growing meaning and truth-making capabilities is not signaled by qualifications and certifications.

Personal development is about becoming aware of ourselves as meaning and truth-making systems and determining to enlarge those capabilities. By enlarging, we mean that we are transforming the underlying psychological form by which we currently construct our realities; this is ultimately our focus in The Leadership Mind.

We can undertake such development to better align the complexity of our meaning and truth-making capability with the complexity of the world in which we live and must operate. Keeping this idea in mind, CEOs can orientate themselves for ‘leadership’ development – that is, use this idea to direct their attention for thinking correctly and investing wisely in their people.

Appreciating the distinction between ‘education-training’ and ‘development’ is important if we wish to continue towards creating our potential for ‘leadership’. The failure of decision-makers to see this distinction causes much confusion and results in a great waste of time and money on ‘professional development’ programmes that are about acquiring knowledge and training for skills training and therefore cannot deliver what they promise.

It is also useful to make a distinction between development and growth. The economist Joseph Schumpeter memorably makes the point about development being different from growth when he says: “Add successively as many mail coaches as you please, you will never get a railway thereby.”[ii]

Growth is simply quantitative change, more of the same skills and knowledge, while development is qualitative change – how we organise our experiences into meanings and truths. All the skills and knowledge in the world will not get the ‘development’ required for ‘leadership’ potential in our world today.

Progress towards a potential for ‘leadership’ requires transformation. What is being transform-ed – that is, gone beyond – is ourselves, the current form of our psychological principles governingour meaning and truth-making capability. Thus, we ask: Are we thinking through others or thinking for our-self? Are we thinking with multiple standpoints or our own singular standpoint? Development is about going beyond the current form of each of these psychological principles in order to organise our experiences in a way that is aligned with the external world today.

We can orientate ourselves towards continuing development in adulthood by starting with the idea of ‘individual development’ as the natural development of people from childhood, the development that seemingly happens to people in the normal course of growing up. It happens, not only naturally, but so quickly that developmental sequences remain unobserved. It is only when they do not happen that we talk about ‘developmental issues’ and refer them to a psychologist for evaluation.

A problem arises in our thinking because in our early years, ‘education’ encompasses and carries what we mean by ‘individual development’. When formal education ends and such ‘individual development’ generally falls away, we often believe that we have finished with our development because we have not seen the distinction between them. That, however, is incorrect in light of the work of Kegan on ‘personal development’, which demonstrates that we can continue to develop throughout adulthood and must do so to be aligned with the mental demands of the world of today. The key message is that ‘personal development’ is an intentional and deliberate practice that will not continue by merely downloading more information through ‘further education’ and ‘professional development’ programmes.

Although we are naturally all born with the faculty of developing, we do not all avail of that power to the same degree.[iii] Hence, many of us may find that developing our truth and meaning-making capabilities lags behind the demands of the complexity of the world in which we live. Research by Kegan and his associates indicates that most people are in this situation and consequently, in his felicitous phrase, are “in over their heads in the modern world”.[iv] This deficiency is a tension felt in organisations today, and it bears on the matter of developing ‘leadership’ potential in organisations.

Nevertheless, we can do something about it when we know what is going on and realise that, in the final analysis, it is a personal responsibility to integrate ‘development’ into our lives. This is where CEOs who get the point can make a difference for their people and their organisations.

A critical first step is to recognise the need to create ‘a place apart’ in which people can become aware of how they are currently thinking about ‘education’ and ‘development’ and how it affects their approach towards development. In this developmental space, CEOs can create the conditions for people intentionally and deliberately undertaking experiences to enlarge their capability for constructing meanings and truths and, thereby, create their potential for ‘leadership’, properly understood.

This is the challenge for CEOs and boards of directors seeking to be effective in creating ‘leadership’ potential for their organisations and for leadership succession planning. Meeting this challenge starts with understanding the distinction between ‘education-training’ and ‘development’ and thinking in terms of the ensuing implications for where to place one’s bets.

[i] Robert Kegan. In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1994, pages 128, 129 respectively.

[ii] Joseph A. Schumpeter. The Theory of Economic Development: An inquiry into Profits, Capital, Credit, Interest, and the business Cycle. Oxford University Press, 1961, Page 64.

[iii] The classic example of this is the Nazi Adolph Eichmann who, in Hannah Arendt’s assessment as we will see in the next section, had not yet developed the ability to see things from the standpoint of others. As Arendt observed, the ‘absence of thought’, “the inability to think, namely, the inability to think from the standpoint of somebody else”, and the “inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view”, as she variously expressed it, can be found in highly intelligent people: “Thinking in its non-cognitive, non-specialised sense as a natural need of human life, … is not a prerogative of the few but an ever-present faculty [power/ability] in everybody; by the same token, inability to think is not a failing of the many who lack brain power but an ever-present possibility for everyone – scientists, scholars, and other specialists in the mental enterprises not excluded.” Development, while open to all, is not necessarily achieved to the same degree by all. Eichmann is a notable case in point.

[iv] The argument for this is persuasively presented in the research of Robert Kegan, such as Robert Kegan. In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1994 Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock Potential in Yourself and Your Organisation. Harvard Business Press, Boston, Mass., 2009 and informs all of what we are doing here.