Recently, I decided to visit the national convention of the Society of Human Resource Management. The annual SHRM conference is an astonishingly large gathering of HR professionals and hundreds of vendors of everything from health insurance to holiday hams, 360-degree review services, recruitment advertising, Web-based services and training programs.
I went to see what commercial vendors are offering in the way of leadership and management development services. Since I believe that one of the greatest challenges IT departments will face in the next decade is a leadership gap as baby boom managers retire, I wanted to check out what the marketplace had to offer to smooth the transition.
Let’s just say that I left the conference a bit overwhelmed by the number of programs on display and underwhelmed by the likely success of those programs. There were boot camps and coaches, videos and e-learning programs, self-guided courses and seminars.
But what almost all of them had in common was their focus on leadership skills. Skills. Skills. Skills. Everything was reduced to skills. There were courses on things like listening, communicating, writing, emotional intelligence and “visioning” (I despise that pseudoword). It was as if someone had set off an M-80 in the leadership section of a Barnes & Noble and each of the resulting fragments had been turned into a stand-alone curriculum advertised as the one solution for all your leadership deficits.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for skills, but most of these programs seemed at best to misconstrue and at worst to willfully obscure the purpose of skills. They are far from the only things that effective managers need.
What Leaders Need
Leaders need skills much as carpenters need hammers and drills. Skills are leadership tools. But, as my wife can tell you, just having a toolbox full of hardware doesn’t make me a talented craftsman. The difference between a handy husband and a master carpenter is not in the hammers, or even the eyes and the hands, but in the mind.
If you want to grow new leaders, you need to focus first on developing the managerial mind rather than leadership skills. Good leaders need a combination of managerial maturity, business acumen, wisdom and ethics in order to know what to do with skills. They must be able to look at the world through a number of distinct lenses, synthesize the chaos of reality into a coherent image and then use leadership skills to move people to positive action.
Given a choice, I’d take a less skilled but more thoughtful leader over a highly trained but more limited thinker. A leader with a good mind and heart can usually overcome a deficit of skills, but an immature yet skilled manipulator will eventually self-destruct, taking his organization with him.
So, why are there so many programs that focus on skills rather than mind-set? I suspect that there are good reasons for that.
1. Skills are easy to teach, to encapsulate and sometimes to measure. Mind-sets are vague and idiosyncratic.
2. Skills are more concrete than mind-sets. That makes training and development programs easier to sell.
3. Skills can be learned quickly (at least in theory). In a few hours, anyone can be taught a conceptual model and a few simple techniques for any skill. Changing minds takes time and patience.
So, what’s an earnest leader interested in developing the managerial potential in his organization to do?
Chances are that no one product on the market will meet all of your needs. You’ll have to construct your own development program using a combination of best-of-breed commercial products and custom-developed experiences.
Sound familiar? Building your people infrastructure is not entirely unlike designing your software infrastructure. But this shouldn’t be surprising. Every organization has its own culture, its own strategy and its own management style. Generic leadership training, like packaged software, will go only so far.
So when you start thinking seriously about developing your leadership bench strength, avoid the skills-only nostrum. Tools alone are no substitute for insight and ethics — the products of the educated and mature managerial mind.
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