May 14, 2020
The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer observed that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” COVID-19 could be remembered as months of painful inconveniences, not being able to leave your home except for a necessary run to a grocery store or pharmacy, and being sequestered with immediate family members for seemingly endless days. Could there be a tiny sliver of the silver lining so that this event would not be wasted? I think so.
In the aftermath of World War II, for example, numerous discoveries made an indelible impression on the world and our lives today. Computers, jet engines, nuclear energy, radar, penicillin, pressurized airplane cabins, photocopying, and superglue, to name just a few. The point is good things can come out of extremely trying circumstances.
I may be charged with viewing the world through a particular lens. My colleague Joe Folkman and I have devoted our careers to leadership development. We deeply believe and have good data to prove that organizations improve when they have better leaders. Could COVID-19 contribute in some way to developing better leaders?
Leadership development rests on three legs, much like a classic tripod.
1. One leg consists of providing leaders with greater insight into how their colleagues perceive them. Often referred to as multi-rater feedback, or 360-degree feedback, this is an extremely valuable gift for the leader who is interested in becoming ever more effective. It gives them useful data. It lays the pathway for the creation of a personal plan of development. It provides motivation and incentive for the leader in accelerating their development when they see how they compare to others. The process provides the mechanism by which the individual leader can objectively measure their progress over time.
2. The second leg involves the development of greater skill. Leadership effectiveness is ultimately about acquiring new or better skills. It means learning how to perform more effectively. Those skills can range from becoming a better listener and asker of good questions, to the skills of running effective meetings. Such skill development includes being a coach and mentor rather than the leader who relies solely on answering questions, giving directions, and always getting their way. Some skills enable the leader to push things forward, and some skills pull performance upward by inspiring those involved.
Skills are best learned by doing, not reading about them or solely watching others. There is great value in watching someone do something right, as long as you know what to observe. But it must not stop there. Without practice, and some feedback mechanisms, skills are not cemented into a person’s behavior. Worse yet, they don’t develop the confidence to try applying the skills.
3. The third leg of the leadership development tripod is the organization’s support of every leader’s development. It begins with the organization defining the leadership behavior they seek. Then this behavior needs to permeate the organization from top to bottom and throughout every functional area. This behavior needs to be heralded in every HR system, from recruitment to selection, onboarding, performance management, compensation, and promotional decisions. The organization needs to scale its development efforts to reach a large percentage of the population.
COVID-19 has brought the concept of herd immunity into our common vocabulary. When applied to leadership development, it suggests that if you wish to change the culture of an organization, you must reach a substantial portion of the leaders in the organization—minimally, a half, and ideally, more than two-thirds.
Senior leaders must provide full-throttled support of the leadership development effort. And the entire development initiatives can not be “one and done” events, but ideally are points of light that mark the ideal leadership journey.
After more than sixty years of working with organizations in the design and implementation of their leadership development initiatives, you have heard a variety of reasons why individuals and organizations have not been able to make the progress they would desire. A frequent answer has been insufficient funding. Another is a lack of senior management support. Some complain about ineffective learning methods. The list goes on, but the most frequent reason given comes down to time. Leaders believe they are stretched. This has been compounded by the move toward leaner, more agile organizations. One leader is doing the work of two. Travel schedules have complicated development even further.
Then comes COVID-19. A cataclysmic event, seemingly out of nowhere, that suddenly upends travel schedules. Face-to-face meetings become nearly extinct. Large numbers are working from home versus commuting into an office. Now the time question is seemingly upended. “What do I do with the surplus of time on my hands?” (Yes, I’ve seen all the episodes of Tiger King. Now what?)
We submit that this is a remarkable period in most of our work-lives. Never before, and possibly never again, will we have as much discretionary time as we have now. Is this not the perfect opportunity to take good care of ourselves—including eating well and getting exercise? To that, is this not the perfect moment to revisit our development plan? If we have forgotten what we committed to do, what a perfect time to create a new one.
That will happen best if the three-legged leadership development tripod is brought out. Every leader needs self-awareness and up-to-date information on how others perceive their leadership strengths and how they can be magnified. Or, for some, it may mean facing the fact that a part of our leadership behavior is really a barnacle on their hull, dragging down their leadership effectiveness. That barnacle needs to be removed. The need to eliminate some negative behavior is the reality for slightly more than one-fourth of all leaders.
Yes, a “crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” It need not be something we merely endure until it’s over. We can make good use of it and end up with some enduring benefits. They may not be as dramatic as computers, radar, or jet engines. But that improved leadership behavior can be extraordinarily valuable to you and to your organization.
—Dr. Jack Zenger
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