More than a Flip of the Switch

Stringing holiday lights around my house reminded me of a common misconception about leadership development. For some who have never done it, hanging lights may seem to be a walk in the park. Get out the lights, hang them up, and flip the switch. Presto, your home is magically transformed into something wonderfully different.

Many see a similar process for developing leaders. People attend a workshop, they work through the exercises and, poof, they are now suddenly transformed into brand new, more effective leaders. As simple as flipping a switch.

I frequently hear people comment about others they know who have been through a leadership program. A typical comment goes something like: “did my boss leave her lessons learned in the overhead compartment on her plane trip home? I don’t see much change.”  Another one of my favorites: “Did my colleague sleep through the session? He sure doesn’t seem to be much different to me.” Although these may be slightly exaggerated, there is a pretty clear message within them.

On the other hand, I do hear comments about how program participants have indeed changed. Actually, there are more of those than the ones indicating no change. And to be accurate, they are seldom about some total transformation of the person. Rather, the remarks are more focused, such as – he seems to be more encouraging than before, she and I actually spend some time these days talking about the future, or my boss is asking for my opinion more frequently. These all indicate signs of progress.

Like hanging lights, becoming a better leader is more than a flip of a switch. It is naive to think someone can take a class and magically become entirely new, letting go of all his or her old beliefs, and comfortable habits. Learning and changing is messy and complicated.

How convenient it would be if every year, the holiday light stings never got tangled,  bulbs never burnt out, and half of the lights on a string never suddenly stopped working, (especially those already hung in the hard to get to places).   It would also be grand if people returning from a leadership program never forgot what they learned, or never reverted back to their well-practiced old ways of doing things. But they do forget, and do stop working on new behaviors. Effectiveness as a leader is a very “hard to get to” place.

I have found that cussing at the bad lights does not make them immediately work, although it is a well-used strategy by many.  Cussing or complaining about the shortcomings of a leader in progress, is just as pointless.  So try this instead. Demonstrate some patience, because you know that learning takes time. And then offer to support the leader, by providing helpful feedback and praise. Don’t force the leader to navigate alone through the inevitable mistakes of growth. Be there with and for her. A little progress here and there, and before long you will notice now those small improvements have actually led to a remarkable difference.

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