By Greg Price
April 26, 2015
CityUniversity of Seattle
This paper discusses an approach to personal leadership development. Leadership research has moved in concert with the economic climate. Yet, there appears to be a convergence in the way leadership is presented in research, from leadership as a process-oriented function in the day when the economy was more manufacturing-based to today’s soft skills, service-centered economy. Organizations are finding that business today is far more challenging with history providing little help in direction. Along with these challenges, there is a looming leadership gap as organizations reduce funding for training and baby-boomers leaving the workforce in increasing numbers, the result leaves employees with the requirement of learning leadership on their own. Research can play a supporting role in this development, as can finding a self-development leadership plan. The plan used in this paper is DeRue and Ashford’s (2010) “approach-action-reflection framework” (p. 24). This approach supports the individual’s learning mechanism’s that acts to build on the individual’s weaknesses and enhances the individual’s strengths. The three part process encourages the individual to be mindful within each phase of the process.
Personal Competency Development that Leads to Organizational Change
The rapid change in the way business is being conducted today puts many owners, CEO’s, and other senior level leaders at a loss as to how best to move their organization forward. The challenges that exist in today’s business marketplace present complex issues where simple answers can lead to poorly executed decisions. Most employees consider leaders to have answers to their questions, but it is often the case where owners, CEO’s, and senior level executives are themselves struggling to comprehend today’s complexities. Like many people, leaders can be stagnant in their leadership development and will conduct business in a status-quo manner, believing that if something is not broken there is no reason to fix it. The problem with this way of thinking is that it is an antiquated notion of yesteryear economics (Senge, 2008). Consequently, this places the organization at risk to become a ‘once was’ business entity.
As baby boom generational leaders exit from the workforce, this results in an approaching leadership gap. Younger leaders will be expected to fill this gap which will place stresses on them and the organization as a whole (Twenge, 2010). This scenario compounds the already difficult business environment where four generations of employees populate the workplace, where globalization, diversity, and culture create unprecedented market opportunities, and where technology supports efficiency but also places increased demands on leaders to alter the organizational culture to become a learning organization (Senge, 2008).
This presents tough challenges for leaders and their organizations. Though assumed, leaders in today’s organizations may not have the needed skills or traits to keep their organization relevant or to even exist in the foreseeable future. What leaders do have are skills and traits that have worked for them in a historical sense and that have served them well up through today. But these skills, traits, and competencies are no guarantee for future organizational growth. The business environment continues to change and what may have worked for the organization in the past may not work in the present or even in the future.
This paper will view personal leadership traits and their influence on change leadership initiatives within an organization. These traits will fall under an analysis as to whether these traits may be a personal strength or weakness. These competencies will be organized into a personal development plan viewed in an outline format that incorporates DeRue and Ashford’s (2010) “approach-action-reflection framework” (p. 24).
Historical Approaches in Management Combine Approaches in Leadership
For decades, management has been the focus of researchers to better understand organizational processes that create a more efficient manufacturing environment. Many approaches and models have come out of such research. One such theory, System of Profound Knowledge, came out of the work W. Edward Deming (1994) constructed that focused on systems thinking and knowledge of variation. This focus on statistical process improvement and support of technology within the manufacturing sector helped make great strides in industries across the globe (Scholtes, 1999). Fast forward to today, where in the U.S., business has changed from a manufacturing-based society to become more of a service-based society, Deming’s contributions have had a profound change in the way business has morphed and how change leadership is viewed.
With the change to a more service-based economy, service industries are inherently different from manufacturing industries. Manufacturing is product driven and unit priced whereas service industries are dependent on providing high quality customer service; a human-centric component that depends on variable or value-based pricing (Solomon, 2013). Though some services have integrated efficiencies through automation via a technical process, service is still very dependent on the value individuals deliver to their clientele.
This change has inherently altered the lens from which management looks at process improvement. When past researchers and leaders looked at the manufacturing process to better understand how to make improvements, change was viewed through the lens of steps, processes, and statistical improvements, but today, service-oriented business is more human-centric which has altered the way change leaders view organizational development (Scholtes, 1999.) It is the opinion of the author that over the past several decades, research has moved from manufacturing-based, process-driven change models to more of a soft, service-based behavioral change management models. Thus, a natural shift has occurred in recent years where researchers have begun to include the study of leadership alongside the study of management. This has seemingly pushed the pendulum of research further toward a new set of drivers from “management by objective” to “the need for profound knowledge” (Scholtes, 1999, p. S704).
Authors in more recent research are finding that leadership-centric approaches to change management have swung far in the direction of the emotional human characteristics. Understanding how to lead, motivate, and capture the genius in others to accomplish strategic organizational goals is of critical importance, but so too are the statistical metrics as a measure of success to understand whether or not the change initiative has achieved its intended targets. To conquer these assumptions, researchers are on the move again, looking to combine both the hard and the soft management metrics into today’s leadership models (Mathews, 2009).
One author doing just that is Jose Mathews (2009) who reasoned that both hard and soft factors “influence the change management in different ways” (p. 8). Mathews (2009) theorized that the soft elements determine the nature of change management, but the hard elements determine the holistic side of change management and where together a complete picture of the change initiative can be viewed. Successful change leadership initiatives involve the human-centered process of motiving individuals to the leaders’ vision, but so too does statistics as numerical metrics have their place in change leadership initiatives as a way to measure success, develop milestones that identify progress, and include determinants to understand if certain change initiatives are having the indented effect on the organization’s strategic direction (Brock, 2012).
The change in research and from economics has created a profound impact on businesses. This “need for profound knowledge” (Scholtes, 1999, p. S704) cannot be left to organizational training programs. Leaders rise from all levels of the organization, helping to forge a pathway forward for organizational success.
The traits that define a successful leader can be found in the individual’s past. These experiences make up the competencies, skills, and traits inherent to individuals. Within this set of competencies, skills, and traits, individuals will find a set of both weaknesses and strengths. These are acquired and developed through challenging work, accepting new assignments, learning critical lessons, and developing perspectives (Kaiser & Overfield, 2011). This is the nature of learning; the defining of one’s set of strengths and weaknesses.
Though individuals may find some work more pleasurable to perform than other work, all work-related experience contributes to building the leaders’ skills, competencies, and traits. To build these skills, employees need opportunities to engage in their development. Often what occurs in the workplace is that leaders will assign an employee to a job that aligns with the individual’s strengths. Yet, the employee may not be aware of or has yet identified those strengths within him or herself (Kaiser & Overfield, 2011). As an benefit to the employee, this is one way employees receive help in identifying what their strengths may be, which is to say the individual’s strengths are perceived by outside influencers.
Personally, being academically trained in economics and business administration and being employment in senior management positions throughout my career, along with the several character and behavioral tests I have taken, have validated several strengths as well as several weaknesses. The recent ‘strengths based development’ applications popularized by researchers and utilized by business leaders since the turn of the century, theorize that if leaders focus on an employee’s strengths, they would be happier, more productive and engaged (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001). However, Kaiser & Overfield (2011) contend that focusing on the strengths-based approach turns a leader’s strength into a weakness through overuse. Also, the strengths-based approach runs contrary to solving the leadership gap as baby boomers exit the workforce. Though the use of a strengths-based model used by leaders can be useful when looking to accomplish tasks in an efficient manner, the approach does little to support an employee’s leadership development.
From a management perspective, the strengths-based model may be considered an efficient and economical use of time and resources, but from a leadership development standpoint for the employee, this does not deliver the intended leadership development opportunities individuals may need to develop. Consequently, a viable option is for the individual is to pursue their own measures and metrics that support a growth-oriented leadership development plan.
Developing Personal Leadership Competencies
As leaders balance decision-making requirements against competing stakeholder interests and ever shortening time horizons, what is found in today’s organization is that the organization’s leadership health may be in decline (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). Additionally, with less funding spent on training and the pressures of trying to meet the next quarterly budget, senior level leadership is found to be failing in its support of leadership training, leaving a leadership development gap within the organization.
However, a solution may be found through self-directed learning. Employees can incorporate their own personal development plan, such as DeRue and Ashford’s (2010) “approach-action-reflection framework” (p. 24). DeRue and Ashford, (2010) came up with a leadership development plan designed to engage an employee’s experiences into a learning system. This model supports the learning of leadership through an individualized developmental process. McCall (2010) stated, “there is no substitute for educating developing leaders on how to take responsibility for their own development” (p. 24). The trouble is leaders are not taking the initiative, but are instead leaving this to the individual.
The DeRue and Ashford (2010) model is built on three distinct contributions to the learning process. The first is the approach to an experience, the second is the action element, and the third aspect is the reflection process. The plan works when the individual makes the cognitive decision to frame an experience prior to engaging in it, being mindful while ‘in’ the experience, and reflecting on the experience following it. Leadership can be learned from this process whether it is a positive or negative experience (DeRue & Wellman, 2009).
Individualized Development Learning System
Approach – The system is simple in concept and design. Employees recognize the desire to want to learn and apply the mechanics in a process-oriented manner. As individuals accept an assignment or task, the individual needs to be keenly aware of the learning outcome desired. The more difficult the challenge is, the learning will stretch and greatly enhance the abilities of the developing leader (Locke & Latham, 1990). Applying this notion to the needs of today’s organizations and the drive to change organizations to become more efficient with leaner operating functions, while also incorporating the ideas of Senge (2008) and the learning organization, employees who are planning their personal leadership growth will wish to seek out challenging assignments. And true to the position of Buckingham and Clifton (2001) regarding strengths-based leadership, these leaders may hope that the accepted assignment will apply to challenging leadership learning instead of just improving their traits considered strengths.
Action – In the action phase, DeRue & Wellman (2009) suggested that being “mindfully engaged” (p. 25) is similar to experimenting with leadership. Applying different leadership styles within this experimentation process helps the leader identify with the different leadership styles and to apply approaches to the individual’s own style. Another action-oriented delivery approach to this model is to “seek and receive feedback from others” (p. 25). And finally, by being fully engaged in the task, the cognitive and emotional processes help the individual develop effective process learning. This aspect is especially helpful to the self-developing leader. Because leadership challenges are often filled with ambiguous experiences, this process will help the individual regulate this cognitive and emotional aspect to their behavior.
Reflection – With the reflection activity, this takes time and though it may be one of the more important processes, it is the least enjoyed (DeRue & Wellman, 2009). The first goal is to have leadership experiences that can be reflected upon. Though much may have happened during the assignment, it is important to identify two or three of the most important aspects of the experience. Look at what went right, what went wrong, and the impact was on others. Once the reflective process is completed, it is necessary to seek out and quickly find a new leadership opportunity.
Outline Identifying Leadership Development for Change
As discussed, the holistic soft and hard elements that Mathews (2009) suggested to incorporate into change management initiatives can make for powerful outcomes. As individuals make choices about learning leadership, building on the strength and weakness framework that Buckingham and Clifton (2001) recommended about learning and incorporating these ideas into a balanced leadership development plan, the individual stands to develop both strengths and weakness within the process.
Incorporating these to create a balanced leadership development plan, the ideas that Locke and Latham (1990) contend by accepting any challenging assignment where leadership can be applied will develop both individual strengths and weaknesses. The Approach, Action, Reflection (DeRue & Wellman, 2009) model depicted in Table 1 presents how these ideas can be incorporated into each assignment with instructions to maintaining a cohesive approach to the learning analysis while working through the assignment.
Key Elements to the Approach – Action – Reflection model
|Create a balanced scorecard,Engage in activity that stretches ones abilities,Be aware of the experience,
Manage the experience.
Set specific developmental goals:
Cast a wider net to network,
Communicate more frequently,
More focused attention,
Accountability to learn.
|Actively experiment with leadership, such as:Listening to someone until they are completely finished talking,Setting a new direction when vision has been difficult to set,
Check in with key people to seek their feedback,
Active cognitive and emotional regulation,
Follow a structured process,
Keep learning systematic,
Refrain from emotional distractions.
Personal behavioral and characteristics,
Impact on others,
Circumstance that allowed or disallowed success,
Focus on the few critical issues,
Reflect on the cognitive aspects,
Quickly begin a new action.
(DeRue & Wellman, 2009).
Creating a personal leadership development plan can be a solid approach to gaining a personal perspective on one’s leadership development and anticipated learning goals. As organization face dwindling budgets, asking employees to do more with less, along with the many challenges facing leaders today, a self-development leadership plan may be the most important action an individual can take for him/herself. The need for leaders to have diverse views with a working understanding of both hard and soft elements that affect both sides of the organization’s health has never been more desired.
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