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Making leadership development worth your time and investment

Leadership education and development for a diverse racial, ethnic and gender group.

You are probably reading this because you value learning, and you want to see things get better. You also likely value personal and organizational growth and development. I imagine you understand the significant role that effective leadership can play in group, organizational and community performance. I value what you value. Yet our good intentions and investments in leadership training and education don’t always get us the results we seek.

I need to be humble and vulnerable to share this perspective because I'm in the business of leadership education and development. As much as I love my work and the field of leadership education, I love even more the idea of helping people, organizations, and communities change in the ways they most want to change. And if I'm honest, leadership education has not always led to the changes I want.

Education with the objective of individual growth is worthy in its own right, of course, and people are eager to acquire knowledge and skills that will help them advance in their careers. However, the primary reason executives and human resources invest in leadership training is to make their leaders and organizations more effective, and the results on that front have been disappointing (Beer, 2016). Sadly, individuals who receive leadership training and development often have less power to change the system surrounding them than that system has to shape them.

In short, the organizational systems — that define roles, responsibilities, and relationships — have a strong impact on individuals’ mindsets and behavior.  Studies show that organizations need “fertile soil” in place before the “seeds” of training interventions can grow. Improvements are greatest in units that already developed a “psychologically safe” climate in which everyone feels safe to speak up and take action.

I dovetail this research with developing leadership through leadership experiences. The best way for individuals to learn to lead is through experiential exercises undertaken in the context in which new learnings and skills will be applied — an action learning approach (Grimard, 2018). “For learning to occur, there has to be some kind of change in the learner. No change, no learning. And significant learning requires that there be some kind of lasting change that is important in terms of the learner’s life” (Fink, 2013, p. 30).

This is why leadership training and development at University of Minnesota Extension often begins with conceptions of leadership and then moves into self-awareness and self-leadership before tackling interpersonal relationships and team leadership.

If you want to get the most out of your leadership education and development, there are two things you can do:

  1. Make sure there is clarity on the group and/or organizational strategy and values for the change agenda. With this clarity, everyone will know what practices and behaviors are expected of them. This will allow leadership training and education to be put into its proper strategic change context.

  2. Look for leadership training and educational opportunities and programs that embrace and encourage an action learning approach. These programs show strong results, and participants considered them central to their development as leaders.

With these things in place, I have no doubt you will celebrate that your leadership development experience was worth your time and investment.

Author: Toby Spanier, Extension educator, leadership and civic engagement

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