3 Ways to Modernize Leadership Development

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Authored by

NLI Staff
A new era of corporate leadership is upon us. Now is the time to reinvent your approach to leadership development. Here's how.

Recent history has laid bare the fact that good leadership during turbulent times is critical. And as times grow increasingly more turbulent—as they have been, according to futurist Bob Johansen—great leadership will be imperative to navigate the challenges ahead.

But great leadership need not only come from public leaders—like politicians—as we’re accustomed to thinking. Actually, public sentiment suggests that it must come from both public and private leaders—that is, organizational leaders. Polls show that Americans expect corporate chiefs to not only fulfill their traditional duties; please the shareholders, increase profits, and keep the business running smoothly; but also to safeguard our democratic institutions, promote an equitable economy, and take a stand on societal issues.

If we don’t give modern leaders a playbook for accomplishing some of this, where do we think their priorities will fall? Probably where they’ve often fallen: in the first few buckets.

A new era of corporate leadership is upon us, and the demands on leaders are greater than ever before. Now, then, is the time to reinvent your approach to leadership development and create the leaders of the future.

We propose you can do so in three important steps.

Simplify leadership models

Leadership models don’t have to be complicated. But organizations don’t make them short and sweet because they fear leaving things out. Our research shows that 44% of organizations have 21+ behaviors in their leadership model. That instinct comes at a cost—namely, people forget them and therefore don’t use them.

This mistake stems from a misconception of what leadership models actually are, or at least should be. A leadership model isn’t just a rubric to grade yourself against, it’s a roadmap that unconsciously primes us to make better decisions everyday. Leaders should consult it when they face a big decision, or encounter a setback. It should guide their thinking in uncertain situations much like a map guides an explorer in unfamiliar territory. But this conscious calibration can’t happen if the model itself is so large and unwieldy that we forget or abandon it.

Organizations should strive to make their leadership models sticky, meaningful, and coherent.

Models should be sticky, in that they are easy to recall; meaningful, in that they pertain to leaders’ actual responsibilities; and coherent, in that they relate to the organization’s broader goals. Organizations that incorporate the three traits—like Microsoft, where NLI helped turn over fifty leadership attributes into three key principles—tend to find the most value in their model.

Democratize leadership

For too long, defining leadership and developing leaders has been an exercise in gatekeeping. Organizations often rely on antiquated metrics like tenure, or mushy labels like “executive presence,” to identify potential leaders. This, at least in part, has led to tremendous disparities in diverse leadership at top levels.

Organizations should expand their definition of leadership, and thereby cultivate a workforce of leaders.

Expanding your definition of leadership means making leadership accessible to everyone. Instead of seeing leadership as a title, see it as an action. Create a culture of stepping in, speaking up, and set the expectation that anyone can demonstrate leadership skills.

At NLI, we define leadership as influence by action or direction. And that doesn’t only happen in the C-suite—it happens on calls and in team meetings everyday. By enlarging the pool of leaders, organizations can alleviate pressure on traditionally labeled leaders and allow everyone to participate fully in realizing the organization’s goals. NLI worked with HP to build a leadership model based on this principle—that everyone could be a leader—and they saw a massive culture change among thousands of leaders.

Accelerate leadership development

Often, leadership development trainings are either too little too late (i.e. Where was this six months ago?), or too much all at once (i.e. There was so much content that my head is spinning!). But it doesn’t have to be.

Organizations should develop a science-backed and brain-friendly approach to learning and development.

Learning experiences should be bite-sized, spaced apart, designed for maximum insight, and highly social. By applying the science of learning to leadership development, organizations can create training that’s more impactful and applicable—generating real behavior change and better-equipped leaders.

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