Leadership development and engagement

Leadership development and engagement
So much leadership development fails to deliver the kind of change that is sought. What is going wrong? Here is one reason that is usually overlooked… The interdependence between leadership effectiveness and the organisational learning environment.

Leadership is often seen as the answer to all sorts of problems. “We are in a crisis because of… (insert your favourite problem, such as economy, slow markets, reduced budgets, poor products, competition, low morale etc.), and we need leadership. It is the only way out of this mess.”

The cry goes up for leadership and for leaders who will swoop in with capes flying and save the day.

And yet leadership does not stand on its own as a panacea. Organisations are complex systems and there are dependencies that come into play. There is a strong link between leadership and learning, and the interesting thing is that it is a two way link.

Leadership <> Learning

It is quite possible you have not yet made this connection, in which case you may be throwing money and resources into leadership development, only to end up wondering why the results are not quite as good as you wanted, or indeed as good as you promised the stakeholders.

This connection is not so obvious until you add the middle link in the chain:

Leadership <> Engagement <> Learning

You could say that the sole purpose of leadership is engagement; to engender within people a desire to participate in the leader’s vision and go the extra mile. People following a leader want to be part of something significant, something they would most likely not wholeheartedly support were it not for the leader.

Given that a leader’s vision is different to the status quo – or it wouldn’t really be a vision, let alone a motivating one – it will involve change, which will usually require new skills and new ways of doing things. Change requires learning, so participating in a leader’s vision will almost always involve learning. When people are engaged, they will learn in order to participate.

Learning in adults tends to be a goal-oriented process, especially in the workplace. We do things for a reason. When we have a goal that we wish to achieve, we learn what we need to learn in order to achieve that goal. If there is no goal, no desire to participate, no engagement… then learning dies.

When people learn new things in order to pursue a goal, and it makes the pursuit of that goal easier, the goal seems closer and more attainable. A goal that you can reach out and almost touch is more motivating than one that seems impossible because you just can’t imagine ever being able to do it. The more you learn that enables you to contribute meaningfully to a leader’s goal, the greater your engagement with that goal. It is exciting being part of something bigger than you, and being able to contribute to it.

But what if you can’t learn what you need to know in order to participate? What if the barriers to learning are too high? What if the information you need is not available? What then?

And what if you can learn, but find the barriers to implementing the learning are high? For example, mistakes are not tolerated so trying new things is dangerous, or systems are set up in such a way as to stifle any change. What then?

This breeds frustration. The desire to go for the goal dissipates, and engagement wilts like a plant without water. The desire to participate fades away, and in many cases is replaced by cynicism in response to any further attempts to win engagement. The employee feels unsupported by the organisation and by their manager, so they start looking for the door.

Lack of opportunity to learn, or to apply learning becomes a restraining force on engagement. If the ability to engage is restricted in some way, the leader will have no followers, and a leader with no followers is simply someone walking their path alone. They are no longer a leader.

Leadership <> Engagement <> Learning

Now we can see the interdependence up and down this chain. We can see how leadership can impact learning, not because the leader espouses learning, but simply because they are a leader.

We can also see how learning can impact the effects of leadership, leadership development and engagement.

If your learning environment is not functioning well, pouring resources into leadership development will never have its potential impact. Organisations need to ensure that it is easier to follow the leaders, than not to follow.

Engagement without enablement will get you nowhere.

Author: Paul Matthews