How do you develop people who don’t believe they need to be developed? According to Randall P. White, Ph.D., some of the business literature on the market is encouraging this mentality among organizational leaders by giving them the impression that they can improve themselves through a series of fast, easy and painless solutions.
White, a principal at the Executive Development Group and a contributing author for the forthcoming book The Perils of Accentuating the Positive, pointed to Marcus Buckingham, best-selling author of books such as Now, Discover Your Strengths, as a major offender.
“Even though Buckingham is British, his strengths-based approach is a very American phenomenon, which is that you find your strengths and build on them,” White said. “Only in America would we argue that you should just play to your strengths. That’s just a quick fix, and strengths can become liabilities when you overplay them. There are a number of senior executives who play to their strengths and do a wonderful job of that, but those strengths might not be necessary at that point in time.”
Because of this conceit — which is almost exclusively American in nature — there is a tendency among leaders to overrate themselves, he added. They also oversimplify approaches to leadership.
“We’ve been stuck in a paradigm that says, ‘Let’s find seven or so things that make an effective leader, and if everyone can do them well, they’ll be leaders,’” White explained. “I think we’re into too much of this ‘push this or that button and you’ll be successful’ mentality. And I think most learning and development people know it’s a little bit more complicated than that. There’s a little bit of luck and magic involved, as well as knowing when to use certain strengths at the right time and being aware of weaknesses.”
White said a couple of qualities are needed for effective leadership development. The first is humility — specifically, an acknowledgement of vulnerability in particular areas and a willingness to learn. The second relates to a work environment that allows room for error.
“Most people learn on the job — when they have to,” he said. “They learn when they’re confronted with a big issue. They don’t learn when they’re not confronted by some challenge. I’m not saying you don’t learn in the classroom. I’m saying the place where you learn the most — on the job — is also the riskiest place to learn because they can make mistakes.
“If you use mistakes as a springboard to say, ‘I got it wrong, but here’s what I learned,’ that’s a wonderful mentality that allows you to learn from deficits rather than strengths, or learn from a strength you overplayed.”