This is no idle question as you might judge from the extensive background in the last few posts. Many people persist in believing leaders are born, not made though we’ve seen evidence of much greater potential. Still the vast majority of leaders even now develop after their teens when they find situations that cry out for leadership and then they simply apply what they’ve seen leaders do that they liked and avoid behavior they’ve seen and hated.
It’s now widely known from research that what’s most missing in this form of development is emotional intelligence training or growth. Some people have those skills from earlier experiences. David Dotlich in Leadership Passages laid out thirteen experiences he found helped leaders truly develop their skills to be effective. Among them – having failed massively at some point (at work, in marriage or personal life in some way) – things that sensitize us and take away any conviction that we might be charmed or infallible. Leadership guru, Warren Bennis said similar things in Geeks and Geezers – revealing how defining moments like set-backs helped people develop the persistence, resilience and ability to fight their way back that leaders need to overcome the day-to-day small and larger failures that dog anyone trying to push teams toward untested innovations.
But we can’t ‘train leaders’ by causing marriages to fail, projects to collapse, getting them fired or imposing worse life crises from accidents, disasters and disabilities. I suppose it’s ironically fortunate for us that these things happen as often as they do to so many people or we’d be short a lot of leaders. Unfortunately not everyone learns to overcome them, though many do and are stronger for it. I can certainly point to most of Dotlich’s crises in my own background though I generally don’t like to dwell on them – mixed blessings for the individual.
So are there other ways to build this? Early attempts seemed to revolve around the now much discredited “sensitivity training” or “t-groups” of the seventies. It’s not like we didn’t have the idea of the desired outcome, but most people would now say that’s not a way to reach it. As the Wikipedia link points out studies showed considerable numbers of participants came away with emotional damage, not unlike the damage suffered by those who don’t bounce back from life’s other crises. This was a way of creating artificial ones it seems.
Role playing certainly developed more strongly around then as well, but it sure isn’t hard to find people who simply hate it. I was one until I finally made peace with myself and decided to regard these artificial situations as flexible games of a sort designed not so much to reflect reality as to give participants a chance to say things they’d normally consider outrageous and get a feel for how it sounds – sometimes not as bad as you think.
Then we moved to ‘ropes courses’ which are still fairly popular in one form or another. Again not a favorite of mine to say the least. I don’t see a need to risk my life scaling mountains to learn to take reasonable risks at work or learn to trust my team mates. But it works for some. I guess if MY boss felt everyone had to go climb a mountain, I’d be learning the Dotlich lesson of how it feels being fired before I’d follow along, but at least one way or another I’d have one of those life-changing experiences these things are designed to deliver.
More recently there seems to be more clarity that the focus should be developing emotional intelligence as directly as possible, leading some to programs like this one from an outfit called “The Horse” based at, where else, University of Kentucky, designed to build EI directly through working with horses in various exercises – yes, actual horses – equine health care. The article outlines a study of nurses who worked on horse exercises versus a control group. My spouse’s allergies would rule her out, but again, it works for some.
Personally I still learn best through reading. I learned to swim, play squash, golf, negotiate (a core business skill throughout my career) and more, all from reading, not doing, reading. I know that sounds really unlikely to most people. I’m the pesky guy who can actually assemble stuff from directions and not have parts left over. I feel quite certain that a lot of early novels and biographies helped me develop emotional connection to people that I never got through actual contact due to intense shyness, but , hey, it isn’t HOW you learn, it’s whether you do in fact learn. I suppose I’m a good example that you can learn in the most unlikely way of all – avoiding as much contact with actual people as possible.
Oddly I’ve come to believe that the greatest key to emotional intelligence is very simple – listening and truly trying to hear what another person is telling you. Today, in organizations, that skill seems to develop most often through 360 feedback (now the core of many executive coaching approaches), where you aren’t actually listening to others directly, but to someone or some survey that collects their feedback and structures it a bit for you, perhaps picking out what’s hardest to hear.
Undoubtedly it’s easier to listen when you aren’t face to face. In my shyness, that was painfully apparent. In someone else’s presence I’d freeze up. Likely I wouldn’t hear a word. When I finally learned to just relax and found it was not only OK, but powerful to keep quiet… and just listen… then I was fine. What a relief. I didn’t have to find words that I feared, didn’t have to worry about what to say.
The most powerful ingredient in leadership in many ways is just to shut up and listen. So I ended up being one of those accidental leaders who got dragged into the role and found to my surprise I was good at it, by doing nothing, saying nothing at least initially in situations, until I had tons of information handed to me because people so very much want to talk to someone who will listen. And then when you have the facts, you ask more and better questions and get everyone thinking… and more heads are truly better than one (than mine at least). That’s the beginning of true collaborative, team leadership.
Can it be taught? Surely that has to be a yes. Will it be easy ? Easier for some than others, but definitely a skill. We’ve seen courses in ‘active listening’ for years, but I don’t think anyone recognized the tremendous value of setting that as a core value directly for entire organizations. When you think about it isn’t this what underlies in broad terms the ideas behind effective customer service, Toyota’s culture, executive coaching, Google’s Project Oxygen and so many more ways we talk about to get people engaged in thinking and innovating? Do we have to learn by listening to horses, to our team members as we try to survive on a mountain climb, to a sensitivity training group, to someone in a role play because that’s easier than in a ‘real’ situation? I used to ‘hear’ voices as I read about people’s struggles. I listened to several thousand books over the years, hearing them talk. Whatever ways we can provide as options for people, we now are beginning to recognize the real underlying goal in leadership development much more directly. In an increasingly noisy world, who’s listening??