Sunday, September 20, 2009

How I've Learned to Develop Leaders

Every once in a while I’ll get a question from a reader, co-worker, or student about how to break into the leadership development field. The reality is, it’s not really an entry level profession, and there’s no one right way to get there.

The leadership development profession includes trainers, coaches, HR generalists, managers, authors, speakers, preachers, and every combination of these. They have degrees in management, organizational development, human resource development, psychology, education, and engineering. Some have certification… some don’t.

So while I don’t have a good answer on how to break into the field, I can look back and share how I’ve learned (and continue to learn) about leadership development. I believe these could be repeatable learning experiences for someone just getting started.

In no particular order:

1. Study real leaders
From the day we play our first sport or join our first organized activity, we are surrounded by opportunities to study leadership and management. We learn from all of those good and bad examples. It’s a numbers thing - the more of them we are exposed to, the more we learn. I started out training first level supervisors – blue collar foreman, nuclear engineers, and accountants - so in the course of just a few years, I was exposed to hundreds of new supervisors from all walks of life.
However, the “studying” needs to be intentional – it won’t just happen by osmosis.
You have to be rampantly curious about what makes great leaders tick – their skills, values, experiences, career paths, styles, etc….
More importantly, you have to be an investigative reporter to find out how they got to where they are. You begin to see patterns on how the good ones develop, and the bad ones don’t. Those patterns can then be replicated for others to follow or avoid.

2. Learn from the real “gurus”
Fortunately, there are already a lot of people out there that have already had all this experience and studying. When you can fit what you seeing and hearing into already discovered best practice frameworks, it all starts to come together and make sense. You develop a proven framework and toolkit.
For my money, the most credible source on leadership development is
The Center for Creative Leadership. They have the best research, models, theories, publications, and programs. No one else comes close, and those that do, tend to have roots that go back to CCL.
To be fair, there are others…. Dave Ulrich, Noel Tichy, Marshall Goldsmith, Morgan McCall, Warren Bennis, Peter Drucker, and way too many others to mention. I’ve accumulated over 200 books on leadership development, and am constantly looking things up and re-reading them. Good practice based on research is timeless, unlike some of the fads the charlatans peddle.

3. Learn from fellow practitioners
When you work for a big company, chances are, there will be others involved in leadership development that you can learn from. I’ve learned from my managers, peers, and employees. One of my favorite former managers now runs an executive development practice at Monitor. Another ran leadership development programs at GE, considered the best at leadership development.
There’s also lot’s of opportunities to learn from others outside of your organization. I’ve gone to a lot of great conferences and networking events, and am always looking for new opportunities to maintain an external perspective.
That’s one of the reasons I blog… I learn as much as I share. It’s a way to connect with others from around the world that are as passionate about this stuff as I am.

4. Don't just buy products and services; buy capability
I lot of what I learned came from external suppliers, consultants, and coaches. I suppose this is a combination of learning from experts and other practitioners, but worth calling out separately. I’m thinking more of those that I have hired to do work or provide products for the various companies I’ve worked for. In my early days, I did this a lot, because quite frankly, I didn’t know a whole lot about anything. Each time I did, I tried to soak up as much as I could during certifications and project work. Most were very generous about transferring their capabilities.
Some of the best I’ve learned from are DDI, PDI, Lominger, and a lot of small, niche consultants and coaches.

5. Stay in “school”
There are some good degree programs in this field (HRD, OD,), but that’s not where I’d recommend starting. First get a few years of experience, then the degree.
In addition to at least a Masters, and perhaps a PhD, I’d recommend attending as many university-based executive development programs as possible. Michigan, USC, and Harvard all have deep expertise in leadership development, as well as CCL.

6. Trail and error.
I’ve been fortunate to have worked at companies that have given me a lot of freedom to innovate, take risks, and screw up now and then. I love to tinker with the system, test new ideas, and add to my toolbox. I've always considered a 1/3 adoption rate a pretty good batting average.
Earlier in my career I fell for my share of fads and wacky ideas. Now, while I still like to think I’m open to possibilities, I’ll make sure anything new I try is based on research, tested, reference checked, and evaluated.

So while that’s what’s worked for me so far, I realize my experience is limited and there still is lot’s more to learn.

For those of you in the field, what’s worked from you? Where have you learned the most about leadership development, and what advice could you share for someone just getting started?


Becky Robinson said...


Great post. I like your focus on learning from as many sources as possible. You have presented a wide range of possibilities here, all of which add value.

I want to make a shameless plug and add to your suggestion about leadership education. Mountain State University offers leadership degrees on all levels, from the bachelors degree to the doctorate. Our programs are designed to be instantly applied to real life, on the job leadership situations. All three programs are also available online or in the hybrid format, to make them accessible for people wherever they are. For more info, your readers can visit

Mary Jo Asmus, President, Aspire Collaborative Services LLC said...


Thanks for the personal insight. A lot of people look up to you (I'm a fan, too), so I think you could do more of this!

Personally, I like the idea of taking a non-traditional and varied route. I think my science degree and my initial work as a bench scientist out of school has provided me with some insight that I have brought to the table in the leadership development arena.

I often find that the "school of life" is the best teacher - experience as a community volunteer or running a nonprofit board can also broaden the experience of someone looking to be involved in the leadership development field.

Anonymous said...


Great little reminder that a leader can and always should be learning. I have found that learning from others is one of the best ways I have grown. Skills and practices from leaders with years and years of experience is, in my opinion, some of the best gained knowledge out there.

I especially agree with your comment that "it’s not really an entry level profession, and there’s no one right way to get there." Or as some people would like to say, "There is more than one way to skin a cat." I am constantly on the lookout for different ways of operating and as many different ways to solve problems as I can.

The best way is to learn from observing another persons mistake as oppose to making them yourself, even though there is times where finding out the hard way is the best for the situation.

Great blog!!

Jason shick said...

Being intentional is so important. When I was younger I was not at all intentional about learning from those who were successful and/or in leadership positions. I was too wrapped up in myself. Now that I am committed to personal growth, there are so many people to learn from. I often go back and think about the way former leaders that I worked for did things. I can learn a lot from reflection on the past, but not nearly as much as if I had been paying attention then. As Jim Rohn says "the drama is in the details."

Wally Bock said...

Thanks for this post, Dan. I'm with Mary Jo. I think you should do more like this.

I like the fact that this post concentrates on one thing: getting good at leadership development. It's not about how to become a leader. It's not about career success. It is about how to become very good at something very important.

Anonymous said...


Great post, thanks.

I wonder though if you like there are some essential experiences (ie. titles) that one needs to hold in order to have a certain type of influence and/or leadership clout. Any thoughts on this?

The second thing I was wondering about when I read your post, is if you think there is a certain age at which leadership development/consulting can happen. I just turned 28 and I feel like I do have a fairly decent understanding of leading and serving those in need of leadership. However, I also feel like the only way I can have much influence in my young age is with those who are younger than me, which is far and few between in my work. Any thoughts on this as well?

Dan McCarthy said...

Becky -
You've earned the right to throw in a shameless plug now and then. (-:

Mary Jo -
Thanks, and I agree with both of your points. That's what makes it so hard to hire for these positions, because you really should look at all kinds of backgrounds. There's no easy screen.

Nick -

Jason -
Good for you!

Wally -
Thanks. I try to balance my "how to be a great leader posts" with my "how to develop great leaders" posts.

Hour9 -
I've never really thought of "essential titles". I usually think in terms of valuble (and marketable) experiences, i.e., resume builder accomplishments.

I started out as a corporate trainer when I was 27 - much younger than most of the managers I was training. I'm sure someone will take a chance on you.

Danielle Lacombe said...


This is a great block. I especially like the first experience of Studying real leaders. I am very much a hands on person and watching brilliant minds at work is what motivates me and helps me retain the good information. However, I have found myself studying more bad leadersthan anything else these days. They are really showing me what not to do as a leader. Sometimes, learning what not to do helps me make the right choices in the end.

smck said...

Dan, I have a question for you and the rest of the good folks here. I notice that there is no mention of Steven Covey and Quint Studer. Reasons?

And to echo other posters - I enjoy your thoughts and leaders that you link to very much!

Dan McCarthy said...

Danielle -
Good for you. We learn a lot from bad leaders - unfornunately, the lessons are not always the right ones.

smck -
I referenced those I've learned the most about leadership development - not leadership. Can't say I've heard of Studer.

Brittany said...

Dan, I really enjoyed reading your post. It's so important to learn from leaders and take qualities from each one to develop your own leadership style; not only their positive qualities but also learn from their negative ones to know what not to do.

Wally Bock said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

Wally Bock

Dan McCarthy said...

Brittany -

Wally -
Thanks, that's always an honor.