We hear it all of the time from learning organizations:

Our executives are too busy, impatient, tightly scheduled or important to devote significant time and energy to a leadership development program, including their own development.

There certainly is a long history of executives giving negative feedback about and resisting learning programs. In response, learning organizations create leadership development programs that are cursed by low expectations. These programs are truncated to accommodate the perception of inaccessible, uncooperative executives, which creates a negatively reinforcing cycle of poor programs and resistant executives. Neither the leadership nor the learning organization expects much from these programs, and everyone lives down to their expectations.

Recent neuroscience research has led to the creation of leadership development programs in which senior managers and executives willingly devote two to three hours a week to their growth for the five months of the official program and indefinitely thereafter. Most of the participants in these programs describe them as “life-changing,” which, from a harried executive, is high praise indeed.

What makes these programs so different? They have four core components that create intense, sustained engagement.

Compelling Purpose

The initial focus of the program is always on the organization’s and the executives’ compelling purposes and the integration and alignment of the two. This group discussion is novel and refreshing for most leaders, because they are never asked to explore these issues. Then, they write and share their own compelling purpose. The discussion, writing and sharing causes the release of numerous neurotransmitters, including endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, while suppressing resistance to change. These neurochemicals generate an openness to new ideas and a strong desire for personal and group success. Participants now want to be in the program.

Path to Mastery

The next focus of the program is to develop a defined path to mastery (including an explicit definition of mastery of the leadership role). Following a similar process to the one used to discuss the compelling purpose, the group discusses and defines what it means to master their role and lays out a path to becoming more effective. Now, they have a reason for becoming great at their function and a viable means of building toward greatness.

Practical Exercises

The third focus of the program is to define a set of practical exercises that stretch the participants to achieve mastery. The key is to design exercises that involve many repetitions – mental and physical – of the key attitudes and behaviors for mastery and then require the participants to apply those exercises to their own work. Reading the exercises and adapting them begins the neural re-wiring process that is the basis for all learning (called “self-directed neuroplasticity”). It is very hard for someone to complain that a learning exercise isn’t useful for them when the program requires them to make it useful.

Applied Social Learning

The final component of the program is a “Do-Write-Discuss-Write” weekly cycle. Each week, participants complete highly practical, customized exercises; journal about what they learned; discuss it with their peers; and then expand their journal entry. From a neural perspective, this process builds many repetitions of the key ideas and concepts so the new attitudes and behaviors are fully internalized. More importantly, it eliminates the distinction between the learning program and an operational support group. Participants very quickly realize that they are becoming better by doing real work but with a new consciousness and a great group of supportive peers.

Why do senior leaders like these programs so much? Confidence in the underlying science causes both the learning organization and senior executives to begin the program with high expectations. The learning organization knows that the approach will drive a neural bath of engagement and productivity that primes leaders to become deeply engaged. The leaders are expected to thrive, and they do. This program is often the first time leaders think about and try out provocative new attitudes and behaviors in challenging, but safe and supported, ways.

Perhaps most importantly, the focus on practical application and group support erases the distinctions among learning, work and life. Senior leaders love the discussions and exercises. Executives feel great about what they are doing and want more development, which is a big “win-win” for them and the learning organization.