Learning to lead

Managers should pay more attention to developing their own leadership capacity and that of others. But neither raw experience nor academic qualifications alone offers a path to wisdom, argues Paul Glen


Each of us wants to work for, be or become a wise manager. One of the most important yet frequently neglected responsibilities of leadership is developing managerial capacities -- our own, those of managers who work for us and those of future managers. Vital, growing and sustainable organisations need a steady supply of managerial talent.

I've spent a lot of time over the past few years observing, probing and thinking about how leaders can and do address this issue, given the practical constraints of business life. What I've noticed is that mostly people don't get around to it very often, and when they do, they pay attention in spasmodic bursts of goodwill that dissipate quickly. They are so busy with day to day exigencies that long-term obligations remain forever a second priority.

Interestingly, when leaders do get around to working on this, I've noticed that most seem to assume that managerial wisdom comes from one end or the other of the learning spectrum.

At one end is experience. I'm sure that experience is a great teacher, but I'm not so sure how reliable a measure of “smarts” it is. So much depends on whether the student has been paying attention. We all know plenty of people who have lots of experience but little wisdom to show for it. Just because reality has washed over your decks and you have survived doesn't necessarily imply that you've learned much about smooth sailing.

Leaders and organisations operating under this assumption predictably try to cultivate new managers by either selecting them based on their experience or attempting to develop them by creating opportunities for new experiences. They design rotation programmes, assign mentors and select work assignments carefully.

At the other end of the spectrum is the academy. Here, the empty vessel of the mind is filled with the facts, theories, models and ideas of the learned professor and the prestigious institution. Formal education offers an opportunity to absorb information and thus generate wisdom. The proxies for measuring this sort of learning are a combination of accredited degrees, industry certifications and butt-in-seat time. Of course, these also prove to be limited measures of smarts. We all know people with lots of letters after their names who can't seem to put together a coherent thought, let alone react wisely to real-life situations.

Leaders and organisations operating under the assumption that formal learning begets wisdom also respond predictably. They hire and promote, keeping one eye on the candidate and the other on their transcripts. They invest in training programmes, pay for degree programmes and send people to industry conferences.

Despite the good intentions and hard work of everyone involved, the success of each type of initiative often seems modest, or at least less dramatic than one would want. It seems to me that a few key problems make this so.

  • Experience is just experience unless its lessons are processed and absorbed. Doing this requires focused reflection just what busy managers have no time for.
  • Theory often does not connect to reality. No matter how good academic ideas are, if they remain confined to the discrete universe of the classroom, they offer no practical help.
  • Learning to lead requires sustained engagement. But what we typically give it is short, intense engagement. Insights not revisited and reinforced over time are easily lost.

I'd like to suggest an alternative to either of the extremes.

  • Recognise that neither end of the spectrum has a monopoly on the best results. What seems to work best is a combination of experience and theory. When they meet up, people learn the most.
  • Encourage frequent engagement with the topic. A little time every week is probably better than a lot of time once a year. The more regularly people think about their experiences and management theory, the more likely they will actually develop their minds and change their behaviour.
  • Encourage conversations. A little time talking to another person can often spur thoughts that might take each individual hours or days to develop on their own.

Developing good managers need not be an onerous job, but it requires regular low-level consideration. You may do the most good by focusing your attention on creating an environment in which people recognise that learning is valued, possible and expected -- no heroics required.

Paul Glen helps technical organisations to develop better leaders and helps managers to perform at their best. He wrote this article for Computerworld (US)

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