Why do companies report frequent discontent with efforts to develop leadership? Often it is because leadership development is packaged in a way that suggests it is a science. In other words, if you follow the patterns and formulas you will get the result you desire. Leadership programs can often be just that – a program of classes that are designed to build leadership capability at different levels. But leadership is not that predictable. The biggest variable in leadership is often those who are being led. Hence my suggestion that leadership is more of an art. By that I mean a complex set of unique experiences within paradigms that require adaptable and agile responses.
Leadership comes more from the character of a person than their accumulated knowledge. It often springs from intuition rather than learning. And sometimes it’s source is judgment rather than calculation. Leaders are intelligent, perceptive and incisive people – not machines.
So why do many organizations still invest in classes as their solution to leadership development? There are probably many reasons. One may be that it’s a hangover from an educational mindset, i.e. attend the class, do your homework and you’ll learn. While that may be true of head knowledge, it doesn’t follow for emotional and experiential learning. I’m not saying that all classes are irrelevant. They do have their place. They need to be folded into an experiential and application based journey that empowers leaders to learn through doing and discovering.
Let’s consider the art vs. science analogy a little more. When I was at school I hated the sciences – way too many formulae and rules for my liking. I never did get much into the research side of science, so please forgive my ignorance. I guess it would be true to say that understanding the formulae and rules is an essential foundation for research. In that case, there is a good read-across for leadership. The same applies for art (some forms of it anyway). Just recently I attended one of those Paint-Nite events with my wife where everyone is taught how to paint a masterpiece in a couple of hours. There are basic rules – which brush to use for different parts of the painting, different sorts of brush strokes, mixing colors, how long to let paint dry before you can add subtle over-shading, etc. So understanding the rules before demonstrating genius through the application of them is where the magic happens. Or in my case – the cauliflowers get painted instead of water lilies!
Where leadership is more of an art than a science is seen in the random and diverse applications and outcomes. Each encounter between a leader and a follower, colleague, client, supplier or co-leader, has the potential to be incredibly unique based on variables that often cannot be anticipated. So to rely on learned techniques and models, just won’t work. They can be incredibly helpful, but the proof of them is not in their innate accuracy or sophistication, but in the ability of the leader to interpret and adapt them in the moment. That takes experience, emotional and cognitive intelligence, intuitive judgment and an instinct for what’s right.
Developing leaders has its greatest reward when an individual leader gains traction, trust and results in their relationships. That is where leaders thrive and the teams and organizations they work in harvest the outcomes of their contribution.