Messy, complex reality is the best place to learn!


realityA Forbes article titled, “Why Leadership Development Programs Fail: Revolutionizing On-The-Job,” argues that one of the ways to make leadership programs successful is to better blend them with real work. I couldn’t agree more. Practical application is the key to learning. However, I do find fault with this article in two critical ways that both ultimately miss the point of a great leadership program.

First, in all of the examples in the post the organization provides some type of realistic work experience for the individuals rather than having the learner define an appropriate experience for themselves. Fundamentally, the leaders that the organizations are developing are still in a passive learner role. Therefore, even though the leadership candidates are developing a limited set of skills by working on someone else’s project, they aren’t developing what is, arguably, the most important skill; the ability to be a self-directed learner.

Second, these leaders aren’t developing the ability to recognize and drive to execution growth opportunities for the organization when there is considerable market uncertainty. Real leaders don’t wait for others to identify a great performance improvement opportunity, they identify and develop these themselves often with minimal information. Once identified, real leaders build the organizational consensus to align with and execute the programs that develop these opportunities into realities. They are not the ones being convinced. Leaders are the influencers – and nothing in these programs seems to be developing this type of leadership skills.

In our leadership development programs, participants have to scan the environment, identify an improvement opportunity and guide the organization to align on supporting the opportunity. In addition, our participants must drive the opportunity all the way through execution. They do all of this in a “learning group” that provides a strong social learning environment of diverse perspectives and mutual support. As such, their learning experience is vastly more proactive and realistic than the suggestions in the article.

When our participant’s attitudes and behaviors are measured using third- party observations and 360-degree surveys, 90% of them display the attitudes and behaviors of the top leaders in their organizations. They are highly self-directed learners who proactively identify leading edge growth opportunities that they drive into organizational reality.

That’s quite a bit to take in; but the important part is that they all say the experience is truly transformative. There is no need for artificial learning, even if better conceived. Let’s face it … messy, complex reality is truly the best learning environment of all!



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