In his recent Harvard Business Review article, Marcus Buckingham, founder of TMBC and author of StandOut, explains the biggest pitfall associated with traditional corporate leadership development programs – they assume that good leaders possess most of the same strengths.
According to Buckingham this isn’t the case. What’s more, he says, this assumption can derail the leadership development process. Applying one-size-fits-all training to unique individuals means that he nuanced practices that make specific leaders great gets rounded off or new practices just don’t work with their individual style.
The result is inauthenticity – leaders are engaging in practices that don’t seem natural to them. This hampers their effectiveness and defeats the whole purpose of leadership development. No one’s going to follow a leader who isn’t leading from an authentic place.
In order to confront this, Buckingham has developed his own process for training unique leaders to take on the concepts that are right for them, as opposed to practices that aren’t. Here’s how.
According to Buckingham, most leadership development training has been distilled to a standard model. He writes, “Virtually every corporate and academic leadership development program is founded on the same model—we can call it the formulaic model. It tries to collect all the various approaches to leadership, shaves off the weird outliers, and packages the rest into a formula.”
The problem with this, he continues, is that personalities and motivations are different for everyone. One person’s leadership practice may not work for the other, and applying the same leadership practices for every leader results in the inauthenticity that can detract from the leader’s mission. “A leader trying on behaviors that don’t align with his compass displays no such consistency. One borrowed technique-of-the-day clashes with the next.”
“The problem has to do with authenticity. A technique that’s perfectly natural when used by one leader may look forced, fake, and foolish when used by another. Richard Branson standing on the steps of a Virgin America jet brandishing a champagne bottle and surrounded by a coterie of comely flight attendants makes a bold, dashing image. Warren Buffett striking the same pose on one of his NetJets would not.”
But, he continues, all is not lost in the leadership development world. By figuring out what individual strengths leaders present, we can encourage leaders to learn and try on concepts in the ways that work best for them. “Leadership concepts are scalable, because a concept is easily transferable from person to person,” he explains.
Strengths and Authenticity
Based on a strengths analysis of a thousand leaders, Buckingham and his team discovered nine categories of behavior clusters, or “strength roles.” He writes, “Contrary to the formulaic model of leadership development, we did not find that all leaders had one or two top strength roles in common; we discovered a broad distribution across all nine roles.”
Rather than train all developing leaders with the same practices based on one assumed set of strengths, companies should attempt to discover those strength roles that suit each individual leader best, and convey the best practices that work well for that type of leader.
“And when leaders are taught how to apply their strengths, their level of engagement increases. In a recent study of senior district managers and district managers in a retail company, average scores on an engagement index jumped 25 points in the nine months after the firm adopted a strengths-based leadership development model.”
Individuals are unique and the old formulaic model isn’t working to help individual leaders shine. But, as Buckingham explains, uniqueness isn’t exactly scalable. Individuals still need development, and companies need to find ways to make it work on an organizational level.
“We need a new model—one that is scalable but accommodates the uniqueness of each leader’s techniques; one that is stable enough to permit the training of hundreds of leaders at once but dynamic enough to incorporate and distribute new practices and other innovations in real time.”
By sorting individual by a few dominant strengths, companies can approach a more nuanced, more authentic version of leadership development. This way companies and leaders get the most out of training programs designed to boost effectiveness and engagement.