Leadership Development is like Climate Change

by Brian Brittain on October 25, 2019


It is relatively typical for me to get hired by CEOs and HR executives to help develop and optimize their leaders. They know rationally, if not emotionally, it is critical for the long term adaptability and success of their organization. I am often on the list of resources to check out because of my extensive background working with senior executives and senior executive teams. Most surveys looking to gather and focus the important business trends these days have leadership development in the top 5 things to invest in. The proverbial question of “what is on the CEO’s mind?” will have leadership capacity and capability at the top.

Similarly, nobody (well almost nobody) would deny the importance for all of us to work on climate change. In our heads, we all agree it is the most important survival issue of our time. But, like leadership development, it is not front and centre as an issue of the heart. The down side of not fixing the climate problem, or the leadership problem is that neither scare us enough.

Climate change and leader development are both over there. They are not here, now. And there is so much here, in the form of fires that have to be put out that managers have great difficulty putting time and energy on the over there.

Like the “climate” story, the “leadership” story often fails to convert us or even interest us after a while.

The ambitions for both the climate movement and the leadership movement are to captivate and transform. We are not writing a good story for either of these movements.

For me to want to change my behaviour as a leader, I have to be captivated to begin with. I have to strongly believe that my current behaviour will lead to an erosion of my happiness and success. And soon. For many managers to work on their leadership they have to be scared that if they don’t they will fail as both professionals and people. That is the first hurdle for which there often isn’t a good enough scary story told. We need a couple of good ghost stories for both the problem of leadership and the problem of the climate.

I was just informed that a new coaching client of mine had been fired, just a few weeks into the contract. Neither one of us had been clearly “told the story” that this might happen if he didn’t shape up. In retrospect we were both too casual in our work together. I never asked her the question, “what might happen to you, if you aren’t able to change these behaviours?” Neither of us were captivated by a clear story.

Secondly, once captivated, the ambition is to transform some old beliefs and habits into new ones. What is usually neglected in the process of personal transformation is telling a good story about the bad personal habits and beliefs that have us “habituated” into dysfunctional behaviour. Too embarrassing to publically acknowledge these. The transformation story focuses too much on developing new skills, rather than digging deeper into the reasons for why, even if we learned new skills we wouldn’t be able to exercise them because we were still locked into the old habits and beliefs.

I also think the climate story needs to focus on what is behind our lack of urgency to take personal responsibility for the climate disaster, and how do we should deal with those bad habits, poor assumptions, dysfunctional beliefs that prevent us from acting. We know what we have to do….we just aren’t motivated to do it.

We are guilty of the same thing with leadership development. Both ambitions are over there and not here. Both ambitions don’t scare us enough into putting our will and skill into solving the problem. Both ambitions focus too much on skillsets and not enough on mindsets.

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