July 14, 2015

Why You Don’t Need Training to Develop as a Leader

When I talk to practitioners about leadership development, we mostly talk about training programs. If I’m lucky, they’ll excitedly share personality assessment results or tell me about a great course they took. Other times, they tell me about worthless seminars they’ve attended, times they when sat in a conference room chair and listened to someone tell them how to become a better leader. Whichever way the conversation turns, it is a shame that training is the first thing that comes to mind for most people when they think about leadership development. Leaders are doers! They are the ones on the front lines, influencing people, garnering support to tackle complex problems, and charting new territories. If leadership is such an active endeavor, how did leadership development become so far removed from the actual work leaders do?

The problem largely stems from an over-reliance on training and other formal programs orchestrated by organizations and an under-appreciation for leaders’ personal responsibility for their own ongoing development. My research focuses on how leaders can take charge of their own growth by engaging in what we call leader self-development. Leader self-development can happen anywhere, at anytime, with anyone. Leaders do not need to wait for someone to put them in a training program to develop. Quite the contrary, leaders can leverage their everyday experiences by transforming the mundane into opportunities for engaging in, reflecting on, and learning from new challenges. In this blog post, I will explain how cultivating a learning mindset and taking ownership over your own growth can help you improve as a leader, with or without a training program.

A Learning Mindset

First, leaders need to orient their thinking towards learning to get the most out of an experience. Ever heard the Henry Ford saying “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t you’re right”? Turns out he was correct. Decades of research from management science, employee training, and educational psychology suggests that how someone frames experiences – the mental models or scripts they use to interpret events – can impact their behavior in predictable ways. In particular, people who hold a learning orientation are more apt to seek out challenges and are more likely to persist even when those challenges become difficult[1]. Recent research from Scott DeRue and Ned Wellman[2] at the University of Michigan highlights the importance of having a learning mindset. DeRue and Wellman studied managers who experienced different levels of challenge in their day-to-day work and they asked these managers’ supervisors to rate the managers’ leadership skill development. They found diminishing returns in terms of how much leadership skills developed from challenging work experiences– the relationship looked like an upside down U-shape – but those who held a learning orientation were buffered from this effect. Managers with a strong learning mindset continued to improve their leadership skills while their peers without the learning mindset faltered in the face of the same difficulties.

Personal Responsibility

Second, the best leaders take personal responsibility for their own development. There is only so much a training program or a coach can do to create the right environment for learning. At the end of the day, leaders have to take it upon themselves to think critically about how to best capitalize on their strengths and address their weaknesses. Research shows that leaders who can successfully regulate their attention can better tune into what the task at hand requires from them and are rated more effective by their followers[3]. If you, like most leaders, are pulled in a million directions and the idea of regulating attention on any one thing for too long sounds like a monumental task, the good news is that people can increase their capacity for self-regulating their attention. Self-regulation works like a muscle that gets tired with exercise, but also build strength through sustained effort[4].

Leadership development is about diving in and getting your hands dirty, making leadership mistakes and learning from them. The potential value of experience is intuitive, but the actual value of experience – what leaders take from them and do differently in the future as a result – is anything but inevitable. We’ve all met leaders who never seem to learn; they are always looking for nails because all they have is a hammer. These are usually the same people who lack self-awareness and are shocked to find out the world has moved on without them. Don’t be one of them. Cultivate a learning mindset and proactively invest in your own leadership development. Set goals for yourself. Ask for feedback. Reflect back on past work/life experiences to learn how those experiences impact you today. Build a relationship with someone you admire. These are all small ways you can invest in your leadership right away. The benefits of self-developing as a leader, including a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose in your work, will speak for themselves.

Dayna Walker is a 3rd year doctoral student in organizational behavior at Claremont Graduate University. Her research focuses on what motivates leaders to invest in their own ongoing development and what skills drive successful behavior change. She is passionate about helping people learn and grow at work.

Recommended reading: Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY, US: Random House

[1] Dweck, C. S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41(10), 1040-1048.

[2] DeRue, D. S., & Wellman, N. (2009). Developing leaders via experience: The role of developmental challenge, learning orientation, and feedback availability. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(4), 859-875.

[3] Yeow, J., & Martin, R. (2013). The role of self-regulation in developing leaders: A longitudinal field experiment. The Leadership Quarterly, 24(5), 625-637.

[4] Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126(2), 247-259.