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Mar 11, 2016
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

I am often blown away by the sheer volume of entities who provide “leadership development.” How would a conscientious buyer know where to start?

Here’s a hint: Decide first if you want to develop leaders, or develop leadership.

Do you want to develop the skills and competencies of individual leaders? Or do you want to develop the leadership of your team? Both are important, but they are different.

The skill sets of individual leaders in most organizations run the gamut, from novice to expert, and the knowledge and competence required at higher levels of leadership grow exponentially. What a young front line leader needs to know and do is very different than what a director over multiple and varied units needs to know and do.

Building from the bottom up

Leadership skills should build from the bottom up. It doesn’t make sense to use leadership learning materials designed for C-Suite executives when preparing to be a manager.

And as with any individual, there are differences in learning style, interest in learning, and willingness to admit they have something to learn and the leadership learning that works for one person may not work for someone else.

When developing individual leaders, why do we push a “one-size-fits-all” leadership learning?

Today, we don’t have to. Learning content is abundant and available in many different modes and styles.

For example, leaders can attend MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), access a knowledge base such as MindTools, enroll in an advanced degree program, or ask for help from an expert. All the tools you need to learn leadership are at your fingertips, or within your network, so long as you have the will to learn.

One simple idea is to read an article on leadership, find a few willing co-workers to talk about it, and make a goal to put one learning point into practice. Or you could ask your boss about her thoughts on a particular leadership skill and ask for her mentoring of that skill for you.

You could also simply observe a successful leader. Figure out what he or she does differently, then model your behavior.

Working as a team

If you don’t want to learn, you’re not going to learn even in a formal classroom. But if you do want to grow and develop, it’s all right there for you.

But what if you want to develop leadership?

Leadership is a team sport. It is not the sum of the parts, and just because you have strong leaders doesn’t mean you have strong leadership.

Strong leadership happens when the collective leadership is clear on and aligned to a compelling goal, recognizes that their journey toward that goal will be a series of hits and misses, learns how to learn as a cohesive unit, and holds themselves (collectively and individually) accountable for results.

This evolution doesn’t happen by chance, it happens when a collective team of leaders makes a conscious decision to explore ways to communicate effectively with each other, structure their work to take advantage of both expertise and collaboration, continuously evaluate their progress, and learn how to get things done as a team.

Think about sports teams, theater casts, or musical groups:

  • Each member brings an expertise, but it is the collective behavior of the whole that determines success.
  • They spend significant time planning the outcome, practicing, evaluating, correcting individual contributions, and practicing some more.
  • They don’t leave their success to chance.

Don’t leave anything to chance

It needs to be that way in organizations as well.

Too many organizations today leave this important work to chance. They plan, yes, and then everyone goes back to their own silo to execute their portion of the work.

Developing leadership is all about learning as a holistic leadership team to plan, practice, evaluate, correct and practice the behaviors that will propel the organization forward. And yes, it is behavior that will determine the success or failure of an organization.

How might that work?

Here’s how one organization approached it: A new CEO wanted to jump start getting to know his leadership team. He started off with the obligatory two-day off-site where each member of the team had a chance to get to know their peers through a series of exercises aimed at both understanding what leadership is, and at finding that “compelling purpose” that they could all buy in to.

Many CEOs would stop there – “We’re good, we have a vision and we can go back to work.”

He didn’t. A caucus after the meeting revealed that a deeper group of leaders might benefit from a similar experience, so they gave them a chance to come together.

What frank and honest feedback can do

The feedback from that next level of leadership was blunt, honest and clear:

“You guys at the top are not communicating well with us, not including us in important discussions, and not treating us as leaders.”

Realizing that this couldn’t be resolved by him alone, the CEO went back to basics. He set his expectations for his leadership team – at all levels. He committed to investing the time for the entire leadership team to learn together, through formal and informal dialogue, through a disciplined process of collectively agreeing to work project priorities, and through sincere reflection about the progress.

He and his team settled on three critical leadership competencies to address:

  1. Consistency;
  2. Communication; and,
  3. Accountability.

They are working hard to develop these skills collectively, and regularly taking the pulse of progress.

They also found that there was just too much work going on. All of it was good, but it was sometimes overlapping, often without including key players, and sometimes without having some fundamentals in place first.

So they worked together to create an operating plan, and identify initiatives and responsibilities across the leadership team, and they used the operating plan to define the budget for the year.

One of the most impressive things that the team decided, when they realized they had too much work planned and too little budget, was to let go of some departmental projects and throw their support to the one thing that seemed to matter most to their customers. Six months later, they were able to mark that initiative “complete,” and turn their attention to the next priority.

This is leadership

This is what leadership development means – learning how to work as a team, with the best interest of the organization first and foremost, and consistently review and evaluate progress.

This is a skill, but one that can only be learned through candid dialogue and trust.

Their leadership journey is going into Year 3. The first year didn’t feel like a lot of movement; they had to get the basics in place – trust and openness. The short pulse surveys that measured their progress were positive, and provided more content for dialogue and learning.

This CEO and his leadership team have learned some things. They have learned to trust, they have learned that they need a disciplined process to keep them on track, and they have learned that they must continually make time to revisit their plan, so that everyday distractions don’t take their work in a different, less-aligned direction.

Both are important

Given that individual leaders have a significant impact on the engagement of their team, it is important to clearly identify individual leadership competencies, and develop a process that will foster both formal and informal development.

Ignoring developing leadership on the other hand, could very well end up like the orchestra of top musicians in their instrument who all decided to play different genres, different music.

It can be chaotic – and VERY hard to listen to.

This originally appeared on Carol Anderson’s blog @the intersection of learning & performance

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.