Reflections on 2010: The More I Know About Leadership Development the Less I Know

Sometimes it feels like the more I learn about leadership and leadership development the more I realize how little I really do know.

I have to admit, there have been times during the last year when I’ve allowed myself to get quite full of myself. We probably all have those moments, those little victories – an award, some recognition, a nice review, a big win, helping someone get to the next level, or just the satisfaction of knowing you showed up as a leader that day.

While it’s great to take the time to bask in those moments of glory, it’s also important not to let it go to our heads. Because it seems like when we do – when we start allowing ourselves to get all puffed out and feel like some kind of guru or role model- that’s when we uncover some blind spot about ourselves, screw something up, or discover some new ideas that challenges our deeply help beliefs. That’s when we’re reminded that the journey to great leadership has only just begun.

The best leaders seem to have a remarkable blend of self-awareness, humility, confidence in their ability to improve and succeed, and a thirst for new knowledge and skills. They listen, observe, study, and practice, and when they get good at something, they either move on to something else or want to get even better.

I had the pleasure of spending a day with the legendary Warren Bennis a couple years ago. If there was ever someone that has earned the right to be called a leadership guru, it would be him.

Instead of just giving a canned speech, signing a few books, and leaving early, I was amazed how this 80 plus year old legend was walking around the room talking to people and asking questions. I sat next to him and lunch expecting to pick up a few lessons, and instead, he spent the entire time asking my opinion about things. It turns out he was working on a new book, and was trying to soak up as much as he could from those in the room. It didn’t come across as work either – he really seemed to be enjoying himself.

I’ve also recently had the chance to get to know Francis Hesselbein this year, another legendary leader and still going strong in her 80s. Again, she struck me as having the same qualities: confident yet humble; self-aware and curious, and a life-long student, vs. a self-proclaimed “guru”.

One of my most memorable lessons in leadership development humility was a few years ago, when a attended a leadership program at Darden. Each of the participants had to complete a 360 degree leadership assessment as pre-work and bring the results to the program. I was feeling pretty cocky about my scores, that is, until the instructors revealed to the class (with his permission) who had the highest score. After being in the program for a couple days, he was one of the last participants I would have picked as a great leader. He wasn’t flashy or charismatic, just some unassuming mid-level government manager.

For the rest of the program, I spent as much time as I could with this leader. The more I learned about him, the more I realized how far away I was from where I wanted to be. He led from the heart, cared about his people but was tough when he had to be, and was responsible for turning one of the worst performing agencies into one of the best. The gap between his “9.9” and my “8.9” was a mile wide, and it inspired me to want to work harder to close that gap.

Looking towards the new year, I know there are a few things I want to get better at or learn more about in 2011, including:

1. The art of coaching. I want to get better at asking questions to help people discover answers to their own challenges.

2. New and more effective ways to influence and lead change. I’ve got a “bag of tricks” that has served me well….. up until now. It’s time to learn some new ones.

3. Leadership selection assessment methodology. There just has to be a better way to predict success in a new leadership role.

4. Leveraging social networking and informal learning for leadership development. I think we’re on the verge of something here. The fun part is, no one has yet to figure it out, despite claims by the “experts” that they have.

5. Talent mobility strategies. I thought I was pretty good at this, but barriers exist that didn’t before, and I have to figure out a way around them.

6. Fostering inclusion and diversity. I get the value of inclusion and diversity…. I just don’t think the methods HR has been pushing for the last 20 years (i.e., quota-like programs) are working. We need some fresh thinking here.

7. Strategic thinking. It’s a leadership competency that’s in short supply, and I need to get better at designing approaches to help leaders get better at it.

8. Performance management. It’s still broken. It always has been, and despite advances in technology, it’s no better than it’s ever been. Yet, I know there’s value in it.

9. Leveraging strengths. I’ll admit, I’ve not been a big proponent of the whole “strength-based” approach to leadership development. However, it’s an emerging trend, and I need to keep an open mind and look for ways to help leaders use strengths to improve weaknesses (not ignore or work around them).

10. New and emerging models for succession planning. As confident as I am in my ability to design and manage succession planning systems, I need to keep an eye out for who’s figured out how to do it even better. When someone does, it gives an organization a huge competitive advantage.

The scary (and exciting) thing is, that’s only what I’m aware of. So more importantly, I know I need to pay attention to the world around me, listen for understanding to everyone and anyone, and stay open to possibilities. That’s one of the things I love about this blogging and social networking thing – it’s opened all kinds of new doors to learning (Dave, Jennifer, Susan, how about chewing on some of these topics on our next conference call?).

How about you? What’s on your learning agenda for 2011?

I’d like to wish Great Leadership readers a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year!