Friday, February 13, 2009 Weekly Column: The Development of Leadership

I'm sure that most of us have heard the adage that the undergraduate degree is the new high school diploma. The growth in post secondary education has been tremendous. I personally spent seven years at two institutions earning two degrees.

I think that one of the effects of being in school for a prolonged period of time is that people become accustomed to its normative framework and to the structured progression. It is my experience that new post-secondary recruits are often unsure of themselves when they enter the public service. Naturally, they are drawn to something structured that can fill that comfort and progression void. Think about it: they have yearly evaluations, built-in promotions, and assessments against standardized criteria.

Development programs within the public service embody these characteristics and we often see these programs being dangled as bait to recruit new hires and retain then once they’re in. I know that we've spoken at great length about some of our reservations about development programs in the past. But what follows are some new thoughts that occurred to me at a recent PPX event on retaining young talent having just finished listening to Seth Godin's Tribes. Now if you have read or listened to Tribes you will undoubtedly connect what I am saying to what Seth Godin presents, I am simply applying his framework to the public service and its development programs.

Through Seth’s eyes, the problem with development programs is that they do not necessarily produce leaders and innovators. In effect they reward and perpetuate herd mentality and produce predictable outcomes.

Before you get all up in arms, let me (and Seth) explain.

Leaders and innovators typically lead and innovate despite the status quo, not in support of it. Yet, the best a development program can do is provide employees with the skills that have been determined to be important in the past and in the immediate present. In essence, development programs are cyclical in that they support and reinforce the status quo, creating predictability and producing (process and rule) followers.

Now, it is not my intent to simply bash development programs, but I do want you to think about the implications of development programs vis-à-vis facilitating leadership. At the PPX event I attended it was widely accepted by the participants that both development programs and competitive processes reward a candidate's ability to follow instructions, not necessarily their ability to be daring, to lead, or to innovate. One participant even said that she was very concerned about the prospect of working for a manager who was quickly promoted because they excelled at thinking inside the box.

Speaking now from my own personal experience, my most rewarding experiences in my academic career were the ones that happened outside of class, the sidebar conversations, the late-night debates in the local pub, or engaging the contrarian piece of research purposely left off the course syllabus.

Moreover, the most successful people I know today aren’t necessarily the ones who breezed through the academic and technical requirements of their programs, but the ones who faced (and overcame) adversity along the way. They are the ones who were willing to take a risk, to challenge themselves, to write a paper that flew in the face of the established order. They refused to write or present that which was expected of them simply because it was expected of them. Instead they chose to forge ahead, to try something new, to challenge authority figures on something they said, rather than take it as a given.

This is how innovation in the government works, Seth would say that if it isn’t met with resistance from the institution, then chances are it isn’t innovative. True innovation, upsets the established order and successful creative instigation (or, in our vernacular, scheming virtuously) requires tenacity.

In fact KP commented on this very blog that:

“I know many high potential and exceptional leaders who have never been part of a leadership program; and not all participants in these programs have been I am not sure that we need centrally run development programs...why isn't everyone just developing leaders?”

So, what am I saying?

First, it is my contention that (as KP stated above) employees do not need to be in a development program to lead.

Second, it is also my contention that opportunities to lead are most likely more numerous outside development programs where there are fewer restrictions.

Third, I hypothesize that that leaders and innovators tend to be drawn to where opportunity congregates, in this case outside development programs.

I assume that by now I have offended some of you, at least those of you currently in development programs who consider yourselves to be the leaders and/or innovators of the future, and for that I don't apologize.


Because I truly believe that you should be leading and innovating now, not preparing for the role in future.

Honestly, ask yourself some simple questions.

Does your development program provide you with opportunities to lead and innovate? Does it encourage you to make your own opportunities or does its mandate restrict you to a preordained set of activities through which you must progress? Is it a blank sheet that says fill me up with your most innovative and creative insights, your tenacity, and your willingness to fail, or is it a riskless grocery list chocked full of checkboxes? Does the graduation from the program give you something it doesn’t give anyone else who has also been through it?

It may be comfy and cozy, it may provide you with that tiered progression and a sense of what to expect over the next few years, but given the questions above, does your development program really meet your needs?

Are you busy preparing to be a leader of tomorrow with the competencies of today? Or are you willing to lead today, building the competencies of the future?

Note that while we work as public servants this is entirely our own initiative and what we post here does not necessarily reflect the view of the government, our offices or our positions there in.

Notez bien que nous travaillons commes functionnaires, ceci est entièrement notre propre initiative et ce que nous publions sur ce site ne reflète pas nécessairement le point de vue du gouvernement, de nos organisations ou de nos postes.