Leadership is the “perennial issue,” at least that is how Deloitte described it in its 2015 Global Human Capital survey report. No matter the survey, such as PwC’s annual CEO Survey or Willis Towers Watson’s annual Global Workforce Studies, leadership emerges as both a problem and solution. Research details how businesses spend billions of dollars on leadership development, only to be disappointed with the results. Why aren’t these leadership development initiatives producing the expected results?
Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal sheds some light. He was the keynote speaker at a Veterans Day event I attended this year as the guest of Matt Mayer, an Army veteran and attorney at Leisawitz Heller. McChrystal possessed an unmistakable executive presence as he delivered a master class on public speaking, seamlessly transitioning between levity and gravitas. And his advice, to lead like a gardener, vividly contrasted the mental images of traditional military generals to that of humble gardeners.
McChrystal said that leaders are like gardeners, someone who tills the earth, pulls weeds, and waters the plants, providing a healthy garden for those plants to grow, develop, and thrive. Accordingly, a primary role of leaders is to cultivate an environment where people grow, develop, and thrive. I left hopeful that the gardener approach to leading would resonate with the audience.
But my hope was quickly dimmed by the realization that, even if people did want to change, they might be returning to organizations and realities that unintentionally inhibit this ‘gardener’ approach to leading. Think about it: time pressures and deadlines, the need for results, pay-for-performance programs, constant crises, and ‘wicked problems’ that need solving. Who has time for leading like a gardener? Sounds interesting, but seriously, there is real work to accomplish! And it is this mindset and these realities that quickly grow into weeds, choking off good intentions and blocking leadership development initiatives from delivering intended value. McChrystal shared a story that provides insights useful for facing such realities and overcoming these mindsets.
McChrystal described how the U.S. military of old, effective for combating the adversaries and problems of that time, was no longer effective for facing contemporary challenges. Over time he realized the real issue was the inefficiencies from the structure, systems, and processes. Recognizing the problem, he adapted from a command and control model, one with a rigid reporting and information flow structure, to one that promoted a ‘shared consciousness’. And according to McChrystal, this made all the difference.
The applicable takeaway for our purposes is that organizational structures systems, and processes are often the invisible hand stifling the success of leadership development initiatives. Research suggests that part of the invisible hand stifling the success of leadership development initiatives are poorly designed strategic talent management plans. Strategic management plans include talent acquisition, onboarding, training and development, performance management (job descriptions, performance reviews, pay-for-performance), compensation planning, succession planning, and offboarding. If designed and implemented correctly, these plans focus people’s attention and drive behavior by introducing, measuring, and rewarding the things important to organizations. They help create direction, alignment, and commitment and encourage people to get the right results, the right way.
Leadership development initiatives can produce the expected results if organizations bake them into strategic talent management plans. And adopting a gardener approach to leading that emphasizes creating an environment that allows people to grow, develop, and thrive makes sense. An environment of continuous learning, dialogue, and useful feedback not only produces an organization of high performers, but also delivers an organization better equipped to manage the realities and pressures of business. n
Travis A. Berger is an assistant professor of business and leadership at Alvernia University, and the founder and managing partner of Vide Consulting Group, a regional leadership and management consulting firm.