Leadership is the “perennial issue,” at least that is how Deloitte described it in their 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?

Stanley McChrystal, a retired four-star General, sheds some light.  He was the keynote speaker at a Veterans Day event I attended in 2017. McChrystal possessed an unmistakable executive presence as he delivered a master class on public speaking, seamlessly transitioning between levity and seriousness. And his advice, to lead like a gardener, vividly contrasted the mental images of traditional military generals to that of humble gardeners.

McChrystal shared that leaders are much like gardeners, who till the earth, pull weeds, and water the plants to provide a healthy garden for things to grow, develop, and thrive. Likewise, leaders need to cultivate an environment where people grow, develop, and thrive.

But what happens when people work in organizations that have realities that unintentionally inhibit this ‘gardener’ approach to leading? Time pressures and deadlines, the need for results, pay-for-performance programs, constant crises, and ‘wicked problems’ that need solving.  Who has time to cultivate an environment where people grow, develop, and thrive when there is “real” work to accomplish? Unfortunately, this mindset and these realities quickly grow into unmanageable weeds, choking off good intentions and blocking leadership development initiatives from truly flourishing.  McChrystal showed us the way forward using his experiences leading in one of the most volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, and stressful environments.

He described how the U.S. military of old, which was 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. But as McChrystal shared, organizations need to first align organizational structures, systems, and processes to support a gardener approach to leading.

(Adapted from Dr. Berger’s article published by the Reading Eagle Business Weekly on 11-07-17)