What is a Leadership Development Programme?

October 16, 2020

Great leaders are often thought of as mythical, elusive figures. They have somehow achieved great feats and now play a crucial role in their company or community. Because of this perception, the idea that some people are just born leaders and others aren’t goes without question. The reality is that this mindset seems to continue into many people’s professional lives. 

As adults, we may strive and improve, but many of us shy away from the idea that we could be a leader. Too much responsibility, pressure, expectation, uncertainty. So when we come across the concept of a leadership development programme, many of us pass it by without ever really considering what a leadership development programme actually is, who it’s for and why it might be relevant to us.

At Circl, our two-way Leadership Development Programme is designed to break down this barrier and build a world where anyone, regardless of background can learn to lead. So let’s explore how we can redefine and reimagine the purpose of leadership development programmes. 

 The purpose of a leadership development programme

Traditionally, leadership development programmes are seen as a way to get people in management positions ready to lead their teams. There is an element of truth in this - all the important aspects of management might be covered in a leadership development programme, (i.e. running 121s, managing performance, having difficult conversations, dealing with complexity, setting strategy etc). 

However, the purpose of a leadership development programme encompasses more than just how to lead people in the literal sense. It’s a philosophy and set of principles for thinking about your life, in and out of the workplace.

Being a great leader is about human connection to those around you. To build that connection, you first need to be able connect with yourself. Much has been written about workplace wellbeing, mental health, work-life balance and finding purpose. Leadership development programmes are about firstly tapping into what’s going on for you in these areas, which will then help you to much more effectively tap into what’s going on for others. 

It’s commonly said that the starting point of any effective leadership development programme is having the space to reflect on who you are, and exploring that with others on the programme to bring about deeper awareness. This then lends itself to thinking about who you are, what your purpose might be and whether you can align that with the organisation and the other people you work with. 

What does a Leadership Development Programme consist of?

A leadership development programme can take many different forms, but to build a solid foundation a programme should consist of 3 key elements: 

  1. Establishing your own leadership values and principles and then connecting that to a sense of purpose for yourself and your organisation. 
  2. Understanding the theory around the spectrum of leadership skills and traits that might be used in a variety of leadership scenarios 
  3. Experiencing the application of these skills and traits in a real life situation and  embedding the transferable skills for later life. 

At Circl we focus on the coaching approach to leadership. This approach teaches that everyone in a team has the capacity to find the  solution to their challenges, rather than blindly following orders. We talk about how the leader should always ask first and then listen before trying to take command of a situation. However, this can quickly uncover the need for a different leadership approach, such as directly instructing team members on what to do in an emergency situation. 

The different traits or skills that might be focused on in a leadership development programme can be found on the Leadership Control Continuum. At one end of the continuum you have a situation where the leader is completely in control, i.e. reprimanding someone for doing something wrong and telling them how to do it. At the other end of the spectrum, the follower takes control and uses their resources to access the appropriate response to the situation. Here the leader takes the role of coach and enables the follower’s ability to take control for themselves by asking effective questions to help them think of what to do.

The Circl programme fosters this skill through teaching coaching skills, and then getting future and current business leaders to coach each other on real challenges and goals. It’s this experiential element that fully embeds the learning - by putting the skill into practice in the context of a real life situation, both parties can truly feel the impact, rather than just theorise or role play around it. What is remarkable about effective leadership programmes is they are often most impactful for the most experienced leaders. 

Developing senior leaders

Running a leadership development programme with senior leaders is often the most challenging, but also the most rewarding. Senior leaders have often developed ingrained habits that have worked for them, and offer a command and control style of leadership. This style of leadership can enable results, especially when it is expected from those that are subjected to it.

However, as working populations start to have higher expectations of how they want to be treated, this style leads to employee churn. It’s very hard for a senior leader who has had results with a style they’ve developed over years to admit that just because it’s worked in the past it doesn’t mean that it will always work going forwards. In fact, one of the main factors often attributed to the rise and fall of many big businesses is leadership that refuses to adapt their style. Fewer than 12% of Fortune 500 Companies that were prominent in the 50s still exist. Those that do have leaders who are always seeking to understand more and be better. Most recently we’re seeing this with the current emphasis on the need for diversity in leadership. 

Developing middle management

Much like senior leaders, middle managers often find themselves in a difficult situation where they have been led one way, but when they try to emulate that style of leadership it’s ineffective with those they now lead. Often leadership development programmes for middle management will focus on what they have felt to be effective from those above them and what, on reflection, they could have done without. Often, the most effective and enjoyable way to be led is being empowered to take control, while still having support to guide their thinking.

Leadership for middle management can be challenging, as they are leading up as well as down. But, like any area of challenge, it presents the most opportunities to discover what really works and futureproof their techniques. Leadership development programmes for middle management will often focus on helping staff to be vulnerable about the fact that they don’t and shouldn't know all the answers, but that being in the middle allows them to access the incredible resources all around them. 

Developing emerging leaders

Many emerging leaders often have the same traits around drive and ambition. While this is effective at getting them noticed for leadership positions, it can be ultimately damaging when they attain them. They constantly want to demonstrate their ability, and won’t let those they lead demonstrate theirs.

This is the ultimate dichotomy of leadership. So many emerging leaders are promoted into leadership positions because of their technical skill, not their leadership ability. Take the sales manager who was the best salesperson. They’ll often spend their time telling their new teams how they managed to hit their targets, rather than empowering them to think of their own styles and techniques to get there.

Leadership development programmes for emerging leaders need to guide people away from the technical aspects of their job to the human aspects of working with and supporting people. The best way to do this is by putting them in situations where they have no prior knowledge of the challenge that someone is facing, but with the right coaching skills they can still help that person find the answer they need. This instils a sense of humility that is the foundation of the ever-learning leader.

Promoting diversity in the workplace

For centuries, leadership has been concentrated in the hands of those that have leadership in their family or community history. Leaders will gravitate to spending time and mentoring people that are like them, because they are easier to relate to. Thankfully, this homogeneity is finally starting to be fully questioned. People are becoming more secure and seeing themselves not only in people that look, sound or act like them, but in those that have the same values and principles, drive and ambition.

This is why any effective leadership development programme must focus on promoting diversity in the literal sense, but also recognise that it is also about the cognitive sense. Diversity of thought creates more challenge for individuals engaged in a leadership development programme - and more challenge and stretch creates more learning. The best way to do this is to bring all levels of leadership, senior, current, and future leaders together to learn and challenge each other. If this is being done while genuinely helping each other, the level of impact and growth towards truly effective and authentic leadership will be unparalleled.  

A leadership development programme is not about building yourself above others so that you can have power over them; it’s focusing on how you can empower others and in doing so how you most effectively develop yourself. The best way to do that is not isolation with other leaders at the same level, but with a diverse group of people across all levels of leadership experience.