Published in July/August 2021
Chief learning officers are recognizing that leadership development strategies need to be comprehensive, and not exclusively for their senior-most leaders, but scalable throughout the organization. Granted, different leadership functions require different forms of support, but there are dimensions of leadership crucial to the function that are frequently ignored.
We frequently hear leaders being encouraged to “bring your whole self to work.” Warren Bennis emphasized this when he said, “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple, and it is also that difficult.” You cannot be a leader if you are not deeply self-connected. And as Bennis points out, this is no walk in the park. While finding a sense of purpose is important, you cannot find your “why” if you are not connected to your “I.”
In the brain, the “self” circuit overlaps with a circuit that is turned on when you are not focused. If you spend your day pecking away at your computer, sitting on Zoom calls and staring at your computer, your “self” will be elusive.
Some organizations have constructed a scalable program for building self-awareness that is semi-self-paced and connected to “un-focus” experiences that can be scaled throughout your organization. If you focus on senior leaders only, deeply self-connected leaders will be trying to get work out of people who are barely present.
Performance enhancement requires a similar strategy – a controlled way in which you can shift the entire culture of your organization. In most work environments, to maintain your high performance, you have to intelligently build un-focus into your day to refuel your brain. This needs to be more than instruction. It needs to be embedded in the culture.
Uncontrolled stressors do not generally develop leaders, they actually kill them. Chronic stress accelerates aging, and work-related stress can cause gene changes associated with diseases like cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Flexible working conditions make life better and take less of a toll on your brain. Organizations that ignore this may pay in the costs of turnover. Forty percent of workers are considering quitting their jobs, and hybrid work is on the horizon.
In this context, many organizations are trying to do their best to show that they care. Leadership development needs to help people authentically focus on a promising future, so that the possibility of a better life is something they can commit to. In an uncertain world, having existential confidence is essential, and it is important to scale this capability throughout the organization.
Develop a program focused on self-connection in tandem with a program that inspires finding one’s purpose through work. Add in a program on possibility thinking and existential confidence, and use technology so that open enrollment programs exist in addition to focused cohorts. Also, rather than hiring a variety of people, be circumspect and have some consistency and trust in the thought leaders and facilitators you work with (imagine seeing a different therapist every week).
Depth is essential, so avoid platitude talk (e.g., you must sleep, eat and have energy), and instead, provide brain-based tips that can be implemented for one’s self and scaled throughout the organization. When you focus on the seriousness of what leadership development is, that you are actually in charge of helping someone craft a life and purpose, it will take on an entirely different tone and be infinitely more effective.