Is leadership development broken?

It is estimated that organizations worldwide spend over $360 billion on leadership development efforts. However, in a Brandon Hall Group survey, 75% of organizations said that their leadership development programs were not very effective.

If we want to fix leadership development, we need to explore the historical focus of leadership development and consider how this approach might be short-sighted.

The Traditional Focus of Leadership Development

Traditionally, leadership development has focused primarily on two factors: leader traits and leader behaviors. The basic premise is that if we can identify the traits and behaviors that cause leaders to operate more effectively, then we can either select leaders based on those traits and behaviors or help leaders develop them.

Both of these approaches are based on a simplistic assumption: The traits leaders possess and/or their knowledge on how to behave generalizes across the situations leaders’ encounter. The reality is that regardless of leaders’ traits or knowledge, their actual leadership behavior varies across the situations they encounter. Thus, a focus on leaders’ traits and behaviors will always be met with limited results.

A Better Approach

To identify a better focus for leadership development programs, we need to dive into the latest psychological research on why leaders do what they do. As we do so, we will identify a factor that is critical to leadership effectiveness but that leadership development researchers and practitioners have largely overlooked.

A psychological framework that explains why leaders do what they do is called the cognitive-affective processing system (CAPS), depicted below.

Leadership Development

The CAPS framework assumes that leaders will manifest themselves differently across different situations, but they will manifest themselves similarly across situations that share similar situational cues.

What are the implications of the CAPS framework for leadership development? First, it identifies where leadership development has traditionally focused: developing leaders’ personalities (i.e., traits) and behaviors. Second, it identifies a different factor that seems to play a foundational role in how leaders process and behave: their encoding process.

Leaders’ Encoding Process

The most critical component of the CAPS framework is the encoding process, because this process is the link between the situations leaders encounter and how they behave in those situations. Specifically, leaders’ encoding process plays three primary and foundational roles:

    • Because the situations leaders encounter have more aspects than they can process, their encoding process identifies select features that it deems most important for navigating the situation.
    • Leaders’ encoding process interprets those specific features in a unique way.
    • Leaders’ encoding process activates select aspects of their personality system to help them navigate that situation as effectively as possible given the features identified and how they are interpreted.

The encoding process explains why two leaders can encounter the same situation and interpret it differently — and, as a result, process and behave differently. Their encoding processes set the tone and direction for everything that they do.

The Personal Attribute Driving Leaders’ Encoding Processes

There is a personal attribute that drives leaders’ encoding process and activates their personality system: their mindsets.

Mindsets are the mental lenses that selectively organize and encode information, thereby orienting a leader toward a unique way of understanding an experience and guiding him or her toward corresponding actions and responses. Effectively, they are categorizations of patterns of how leaders commonly read and interpret the situations they encounter.

Acknowledging that leaders’ encoding process is foundational to how they process and behave, and that mindsets largely drive leaders’ encoding processes, we can conclude that organizations can more effectively develop their leaders if they focus on mindsets, a historically overlooked topic in leadership development.

Which Mindsets Are Essential for Leader Effectiveness?

One of the greatest barriers that leadership development practitioners face when it comes to developing leaders through a focus on their mindsets is knowing which mindsets to emphasize and develop.

Fortunately, research now tells us that there are four mindsets that affect leaders’ effectiveness:

1. Growth Mindset

When leaders have a growth mindset, they believe that people, including themselves, can change their talents, abilities and intelligence. This belief is critical, because it mentally primes them to approach challenges, take advantage of feedback, adopt the most effective problem-solving strategies, provide developmental feedback to subordinates, and be effortful and persistent in seeking to accomplish goals.

2. Open Mindset

When leaders have an open mindset, they are open to the ideas of others and are willing to take those ideas seriously. With this mindset, leaders believe that they do not know everything and that their perspective is limited. This belief causes them to focus on finding truth and thinking optimally rather than seeking to be right. Leaders with an open mindset are more comfortable with ambiguity, they seek out different perspectives, and they see disagreements as opportunities to improve their thinking.

3. Promotion Mindset

Leaders with a promotion mindset are focused on winning and gains. They are focused on a specific purpose, goal or destination and making progress toward it. Across decades, researchers have found that people with a promotion mindset are positive thinkers, persist despite challenges and setbacks, and are high-level performers in terms of both task and innovative performance. In fact, multiple studies have found that firms with promotion-focused chief executives outperform firms with prevention-focused chief executives.

Outward Mindset

When leaders have an outward mindset, they believe others are as important as themselves. This belief allows them to see the people they lead not as objects but as people of value. With this mindset, leaders are not self-serving. Instead, they are primed to be empathetic servant leaders who are likely to recognize and support their followers and create an engaging work environment.

What It Means for Leadership Development

If organizations want to more effectively develop their leaders, it is critical that they expand their focus to leaders’ mindsets, which drive their encoding process and subsequent processing and behavioral dispositions. The good news? Decades of mindset research reveals that developing and improving mindsets is relatively easy. We simply need to know which mindsets we need to focus on and design specific interventions to activate and strengthen them.