Developing Leader Know-How

Organisations spend a lot of time and money on initiatives aimed at helping their current and potential leaders to be effective and to ensure a positive, sustainable future. However, the instigators of these initiatives often face a tough time convincing the purse string holders that it is a valuable investment. The dreaded “where’s the evidence that it makes a difference?” question is an almost impossible one to answer with any definitive data.

I won’t bore you with the details of the research in this area, other than to inform you that it doesn’t help very much. It is a very complex thing to study; there are so many variables at play and so many ways of defining and operationalising the development of leaders that much of the research is characterised by inconsistency and design flaws so that it is generally inconclusive.

So in an area where semantics can easily prevail, we are often left pondering definitions and debating the efficacy of different approaches to leadership development. Even in this prior statement, there is a potential major source of debate. Note that I referred to ‘leadership development’. If I had referred to ‘leader development’, then the implications for approaches and practices are quite different.

The distinction between ‘leadership development’ and ‘leader development’ is an important one. Leadership development is commonly where organisations train groups of leaders to meet organisational needs (values, behaviours etc.). In some organisations, this can be about getting leaders to conform to ways of leading that fit, reinforce and perpetuate the organisational culture. Leader development is much more about individuals and working with their personal and specific development needs. This form of development is far removed from promoting conformity and, instead, is about encouraging authenticity and doing the ‘right thing’. This is where 1-1 coaching, when implemented appropriately, is an important vehicle and is seen as developmental rather than its too often unfortunate association with being remedial. A coach who will make a real impact needs to have permission to push leaders outside the boundaries of their safety zone, encourage risk-taking and get them to think beyond what they believe has worked in the past.

My own experience of working in organisations across numerous sectors is that leadership development has changed little. I believe there is much more scope for new and different approaches to leader development. My own views on leader development form the core of my new book, Top Performance Leadership, founded on my broad experience and belief that it is leaders’ ‘motives’ and ‘know-how’ that really define and underpin their success. Organisations are increasingly asking me to support their leaders in the process of developing these areas rather than running conventional skills-based leadership development programmes which essentially constitute events in the form of workshops, master classes and the like.

There is a lot written on how leaders get to the top via their leadership skills but virtually nothing on how they stay there as leaders – a very different challenge. Having observed top performers and leaders at very close quarters in a variety of arenas over several years, I have come to realise that they possess what I believe to be a form of wisdom or know-how. My published research to support this observation shows that sustainable leadership can be thought of as comprising three core know-hows:
• ‘Knowing how to self-actualise’, which equips leaders with a self-knowledge and ability to self-regulate which drives both resilience and personal growth.
• ‘Knowing how to work with the environment’, which helps them to lead their people more effectively as well as enabling them to shape the environment to their advantage so that their path to self-actualisation is as smooth as possible.
• ‘Knowing how to deliver top performance’, which provides them with the ability to deliver the goods on a sustainable basis.

Leaders’ strength and depth in all three know-hows underpins their sustainability and longevity. The challenge for organisations is that leader know-how is very difficult to train or teach in leadership development programmes. Instead, it is the ongoing day-to-day experience, exploration, experimentation, preparation and reflective practice that is the source of their growth and development. More and more of my work with senior leaders is now spent reviewing recent events and preparing for upcoming challenges and opportunities to develop their know-how. Experiences documented in the form of regularly revised and updated self-narrative journals or other similar techniques are a valuable vehicle for development.

Documenting their key learning from formative events when they had the confidence to let go, were willing to make mistakes, had the courage to make and own tough decisions and were comfortable with the visibility of being a role model are examples of important sources of leader know-how development. It helps them to build a resilient self-belief and be able to maintain motivation when things are tough. And it helps them to stay focused on the things that matter and harness thoughts and feelings so that they remain positive.

Other ways of developing leader know-how ‘on the job’ include: seeking impactful developmental feedback on a regular basis rather than once a year during performance reviews; finding opportunities to lead cross-functional workstreams that are focused on change initiatives; finding ways of having a voice in the organisation by gaining access to the most senior leaders.

The important thing about leader know-how development is that it is real and ongoing so that the organisation is able to see relevant, lasting and tangible benefits quickly.

Professor Graham Jones is the Managing Director of Top Performance Consulting Ltd ( His latest book, Top Performance Leadership, was published by How To Books in June 2014.