Best Practices and Leadership Development

Let me just state this outright…I am not a fan of best practices. Not in business, in general.  Not with regard to talent management.  And not in leadership development (or the practice of leadership).

Phew!  Now that I’ve cleansed my soul of that controversial notion, let me explain why…preferably before many of you blow a gasket!

In a recent blog article, Kate Nasser, the self-proclaimed People-Skills Coach, derided best practices as working directly against the kind of learning all organizations need for survival.  By relying on the actions, activities, or decisions that have led to success in the past, organizations lose the very proactive adaptability required in modern business.  I couldn’t agree more.

How often have you heard leaders inquiring about “what other companies do?”  First of all, if you don’t already know what other companies are doing, it’s a slippery slope to assume what they are doing will work within your organization.  Your culture, your challenges, your people are fundamentally different from your competitors, sometimes in subtle ways and other times completely.

A somewhat recent best practice in leadership development seems to be to create some sort of manager certification program, infusing the “best practices” of leadership and rolling out a curriculum through which managers are anointed “qualified” to lead others.  But let’s explore this idea a little.  Does it really make any sense?

The problem with this type of approach is the assumption that solid leadership is merely about sitting through some classes or discussing within a seminar roundtable one leadership theory or another.  Transformational vs transactional leadership.  Authoritarian vs collaborative management.  Delegation or directive leadership.

In some ways, it’s much the same problem as assuming an MBA qualifies one to lead others.  The fact is, leadership can be developed.  It cannot, however, be simply taught.  Nor can it be promulgated by adherence to a variety of leadership “best practices,” activities or recommended approaches to deal with what inevitably are situational leadership demands.  Viewed in the context of the uniqueness of every situation, “best practices” may serve as a guide for considering leadership solutions, but they cannot be taken as truly complete recipes for how a leader must act.

So, I stated that, indeed, leadership can be developed.  And I submit the role of education and formal training in this development is important.  But developing leaders must go far beyond leadership courses.  In fact, courses themselves only provide a foundation from which application of theories must take place in order for leaders to develop.  Through trial and error, and subsequent coaching and mentoring, leaders forge a stronger and stronger future for themselves and their followers.  But no amount of programming can possibly “certify” leaders as competent.  Assuming as much may indeed cause more harm than good in terms of strength of the leadership corps within an organization.  Additionally, the broader talent management implications, through which highly qualified emerging leaders may actually be eliminated for promotional opportunities because they have not been through the official “certification” process, are significant.

So, what can be done?  First, go ahead and develop a top-tier leadership development program.  Incorporate formal learning into that system, but design a program built around mentoring, coaching, and stretch assignments, complete with accountability and on-going assessments of the individuals and overall leadership competencies in your organization.  A system so developed, and aligned with the culture of the organization, will always be a better bet than reliance on best practices and certification.

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