We have reached a point in the evolution of leadership and organization effectiveness where we understand the importance of the physical health of the people who work in any given organization. We have OSHA standards, promote health habits, and encourage fitness activities. We know that ensuring well-being is not only the ethical thing to do, it also makes good business sense. People are more productive when they are healthy, and are less likely to call in sick.
Some leaders also understand that health and well-being includes mental health. Employees, for example, may have access to counselors and psychologists. They may be encouraged to maintain a workload that is not overwhelming or occasionally take a mental health day.
What is often left out of the conversation, however, is the importance of professional development for enduring mental health.
People need to learn. We need to be challenged mentally and when we’re not, we become cynical, lethargic, complacent, and depressed. Mental acuity and strength comes from pushing ourselves to continuously learn. That’s what effective professional development does. It gets people mentally fit by pushing them into the unfamiliar, sometimes in ways where it may seem difficult to see how it will directly impact how they do their job.
The type of work people do is irrelevant. Everyone should have access to professional development. People whose jobs are inherently mentally challenging still must have ongoing professional development. Growth happens outside our comfort zone. It is essential that they experience a learning that disrupts their mindset and allows them to see opportunities and problems in a new light.
For those people who do not have jobs that are particularly mentally challenging, opportunities should be provided that keep them mentally fit. It is cruel to expect human beings to go through a full workday without using their minds. That’s why enlightened leaders won’t get bent out of shape if a custodian uses an organization’s resources to learn Italian. Will learning Italian have a direct impact on how effective she is at performing her job? Yes. Yes, it will. She may not actually use Italian in her duties, but she will be a better critical thinker and have a sharper mind when things inevitably go sideways.
If you want people who are engaged at work, are good problem solvers, and drive the whole organization to be better, then you not only promote professional development, you require it.
Don’t baulk if the subject matter doesn’t seem to align directly with the requirements of the job. Explicit application to current duties is secondary. Innovation comes from a place where no one else is looking. Significant leeway should be given on the subject matter that people can choose from for professional development. Ensure that the content and delivery is of a high quality and let people explore.
Being an effective leader and running an enlightened organization means being proactive not reactive. It means continuously striving to create an environment where people can operate at peak performance. That’s a tall order, but that’s why it’s a group effort and an ongoing challenge.
There has been some great effort to get people to the polls this year. It’s encouraging.
I have noticed, however, a common argument for voting seems to be that a single vote can make all difference. They talk about how close races have been in the past, where very few votes made the difference. NPR, for instance, had an interesting article titled “Why Every Vote Matters—The Elections Decided By A Single Vote (Or A Little More).”
It’s true that sometimes races and decisions can get very close and that can be exciting, but focusing on that misses the point a bit. It devalues the magnitude of what it means to head out to the polls and add your voice.
Voting is important not because you might be the one vote that swings it the way you want it to go. Voting is important because a democracy demands the voice of the people to elect our leaders. It’s not about me the person. It’s about we the people. It’s about us as a municipal, state, national, and global community.
Individualism is important, but perhaps we have strayed too far in our understanding of how we function as a community, and become too focused on our own egos. In a democracy, and in the United States in particular, we as individuals make up something bigger. Our national motto even tells us so.
So when you vote, it’s not a time to think about you. Sure take your selfies (where it’s permitted), broadcast your pride in doing your duty, show other people how good it feels to participate in the process. But remember that this moment is about synergy—when we come together to create something greater than all of us put together.
There tends to be a lot of confusion between training and professional development. Most often, those two things are conflated. Other times, people are vaguely aware that they are different things, but they’re just not sure what the distinction is or how to define it.
So first I’ll just make this simple by explaining the difference.
Training is operational. It teaches people how to be competent at their jobs.
Professional development is strategic. It teaches people to excel in areas beyond the status quo. This means acquiring knowledge, skills, and abilities that are widely transferable across a jobs and industries. The learning that happens at this level is often conceptual, and requires the learners to put effort into how to apply the content.
Training gets people to be compliant. Professional development gets them committed.
So, why is it important to make this distinction? For one thing, how you teach in these two areas is very different, so if you’re hiring for training, you should not assume that that person can teach professional development, and vice-versa. A good deal of training could be done internally by subject matter experts, but it’s unlikely those people will have any interest or aptitude in teaching professional development. Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because someone is a subject matter expert that they can teach. It’s a common problem in the workplace, like assuming that someone will be a good supervisor because they’re good at their current job.
Another reason to make the distinction between training and professional development has to do with funding and budgets. If you don’t make the distinction between training and professional development, all funding will just default to training, and professional development will go by the wayside. Because training is necessary to just get the work done right, training will often override any need for strategic growth.
When managers or leaders are asked what they’re doing for professional development, sometimes they will proudly quote some exorbitant dollar figure, but the reality is all that money is just going toward making sure people know how to do their jobs. Little to no investment is being made for continuous learning; that is, teaching people how to be better problem solvers, critical thinkers, and innovators.
Obviously people need to know how to do their jobs, but after that, it is equally important that they continue to learn. In the same way you want a business to continually improve, you also want the people who make that business run to continuously improve, and that’s where professional development comes in. High performers will gravitate toward professional development (after they’ve gone through training) because professional development requires discretionary effort. They want to be better and do better, and they hunger for knowledge.
As I wrote above, training ensures that people are compliant, and compliance is necessary. But when you provide learning opportunities to your people that open their minds and allow them to explore an envision bold new ideas, that’s when they get committed. When people are committed to an organization, and only when they are committed, can great things happen.
Why do otherwise promising leaders hitch their wagon to an anchor?
Being an effective and ethical leader is exhausting. It requires constant effort and a strong group of allies and advisors (i.e., other leaders). When you’re desperate or feel like you’re drowning and someone tosses you a rope, you can be so eager and grateful for the gesture that sometimes you don’t notice when it’s a noose.
When a leader gets hooked on a destructive advisor, it’s toxicity grows. The leader can put so much faith in the relationship that other relationships start to suffer. Other would-be allies, intending to alert the leader to the problem, are seen as a nuisance; people who are just getting in the way.
As the leader pushes his team away, he becomes increasingly dependent on the destructive advisor. When it feels like more and more people are out to get you, it’s increasingly reassuring to have that one person on your side. You know he’s on your side because he keeps showing you all those other people who are out to get you. Soon you have no one left but the person who is destroying you. (You may have seen this play out in someone’s personal life as well.)
Here a two stories that may sound familiar to you that illustrate how a destructive advisor gains power.
The department lead, Agnes, has her go-to guy, Hal. When it comes to transactional work, he seems to be the master. It appears no one else can do what he does. And Hal makes damn sure it stays that way. Hal constantly laments how overworked he is. He exhibits his workload physically so all the world can see the demands put upon him. His calendar is like a sliding block puzzle, forever shifting, rescheduling, and cancelling. When he is offered help, it never goes well. The offer is either rebuffed or the good Samaritan fails miserably. No one, it seems, is capable of understanding the intricacies of the tremendous demands Hal faces on a daily basis.
Agnes buys it hook line and sinker. The dread of losing him is so consuming that she doesn’t see the misery that Hal creates all around him. He can’t collaborate. He refuses to explain in any form how he takes care of his end of a process. And although he insists that it’s everyone else that just doesn’t get it, the work that he produces ranges from inadequate to incompetent.
Margaret is intent on ferreting out the dysfunction and incompetence in the office. She spots when mistakes are made and eagerly notifies her boss, Paul. Paul is grateful for the discovery and aghast that such things could be happening under his watch. With apparent support from the Paul, Margaret confronts the offending parties and interrogates them about their deplorable practices. She gives the impression that Paul is questioning their ability to do their jobs. Margaret takes it upon herself to closely monitor everyone under the dark cloud of her suspicions.
Paul admires Margaret’s tenacity and ambition to clean house and get things in order. When he needs information, she gets it. Or at least incessantly harasses people to get the information. What would he do without her, he wonders. Never mind that she is essentially terrorizing the rest of the office. Never mind that she is creating massive dysfunction and inefficiency. All Paul can see is that Margaret uncovered wrongdoing and therefore she is indispensable.
Unlike the destructive advisors in Shakespeare’s plays, in the workplace a leader’s destructive advisor may not be deliberately trying sabotage the leader, which makes it that much more difficult to spot. Not only does the leader believe the destructive advisor is doing the right thing, so does the destructive advisor. A destructive advisor believes she is the leader’s and the organization’s greatest asset. It’s a sort of spell both parties fall into in this toxic relationship.
Here are four ways to break the destructive advisor’s obfuscating spell.
- Listen—truly listen—to the entire team, and never let one person be your barometer for the wellbeing of the organization. It often takes a lot of courage to go to the boss to express your concerns, so when someone actually musters it, the boss should take it seriously. Yes, there are people who are a little too eager to gripe, but that doesn’t necessary mean their concerns are unfounded. If you, as the leader, are using one person to interpret how the whole team is functioning just so you don’t have to deal with it, you are failing as a leader.
- Look closely at how your closest ally treats other people. The personality they present to you, may not be the personality they present to others. Don’t make excuses for abusive or unfair treatment. Justifying bad behavior as your ally being firm or other people’s misperceptions or over-sensitivity is not OK. No one, much less a leader, should ever tolerate anyone to be treated badly. Full stop.
- Spotting when things go wrong is relatively easy. Fixing them is slightly more difficult. The part within fixing the problem that takes real skill is working with the people who own those processes and treating them with respect and dignity they deserve as the problem gets resolved. If your advisor can’t do that part, he either needs to be developed so he can, or removed from that role entirely.
- If it looks to you as if one person holds all the knowledge for how to perform a key function, that’s a problem. It may not necessarily be the destructive advisor’s fault that a process isn’t transparent, but, as the leader, it sure as hell is your fault. You cannot allow one person to monopolize so much institutional knowledge that they that can use it to hold the rest of the organization hostage.
Leaders should respect the hard work and expertise of their team. They should be grateful for their contributions and let people know how much they are appreciated. But when someone crosses the line and starts to use that expertise against the organization, you need to put an end to it definitively. That could mean helping that person see that they are doing harm, or, failing that, helping that person transition out of the organization.
Leaders need allies. No one does it alone. Just proceed with caution. Trust is important and it should extend beyond your closest ally.
Some people, I have found, are displeased when we mix politics with talk of leadership. Readers who feel this way, I surmise, just want to stay focused on what they know to be an important subject without having to wade through someone’s political opinions to get to the point. They want to be free to talk business and share knowledge of their profession without slipping down the dark hole they suffer through every Thanksgiving with their relatives. There’s also this element of liking what someone is saying about leadership only to learn that he voted for the other guy that can be a real buzzkill.
I get it, I really do. But I also disagree that we shouldn’t mix leadership discussion with politics, and here’s why.
Government and the private sector are conjoined (sometimes in ways they should not be), and running a government involves politics. To try to extract politics from talk of leadership would be negligent. We don’t pretend to be able to talk about economics or history without involving politics, nor should we with leadership.
The political world is filled with highly visible leaders who make critical decisions that sometimes have a global impact. We are able to see the effects of their leadership and decision-making on a massive scale and that helps those of us who study leadership learn from them and point to them as examples of what to do and what not to do.
No, it’s not entirely objective, and yes, there is a way to report on politics and government without picking sides. Once upon a time, the news media was rather good at this. But leadership theory and development is not necessarily about staying dispassionate (sometimes it is, but not always). More often it’s about getting passionate, angry, excited, or scared and then doing something about it. More to the point, leadership development is about getting people passionate, angry, excited, and scared enough to take take action. And that means getting people out of their comfort zone.
While some of us might wish leadership was pure science, it is not. There is a lot of opinion involved with the study and practice. People will disagree with methods and even outcomes. For instance, Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos, and Ben Carson were appointed to the president’s cabinet in the hope that they would bring down the offices they are leading (EPA, Education, and HUD respectively). One might therefore argue that they are effective leaders because their intentions are being realized. But as Barbara Kellerman teaches us, when we talk about good leadership, we need to consider ethics as well as effectiveness. My opinion would be that, by evaluating them on both criteria, they are disastrous leaders, and I could have a pretty rousing discussion on the subject. Others may not agree, but if we’re going to discuss leadership and learn from each other, we’re going to have to be OK with disagreeing. In fact, we’re going to have to venture into areas where we know there will be disagreement. That’s how we learn.
When teaching leadership, people like to lean on sports metaphors because there are clear winners and losers and no one’s going to get too offended when they hear a story about Vince Lombardi or Red Auerbach. Those leadership lessons play it safe (for the most part).
But many of those anecdotes are a bit shopworn and sometimes pretty shallow in terms of leadership theory and analysis. We need to be willing to go out on a limb—sometimes making people feel uncomfortable—in order for them to understand the underpinnings of leadership. What’s more, we need to be willing to point to poor leadership when we see it because calling out bad leadership is just as important as calling out good leadership.
The alternative is complacency. If we’re not clear about what bad leadership is and explicit about who those bad actors are, we start accepting it as normal. By not calling it out, we are allowing it. It slowly destroys our standards and when it comes to leadership, the corrosion of standards is catastrophic.
The bar keeps getting lower and we don’t notice it. Slowly the caliber of leaders descends until we look up and find ourselves awash in leaders who are toadies, nincompoops, and assholes.
When we don’t point out bad leadership when we see it, we start thinking that it’s perfectly acceptable for people like Scott Pruitt to be in a leadership position.
It’s not acceptable. It’s wrong and it’s tremendously damaging. And if we’re going to discuss leadership and get better at it, we need to be screaming that from the rooftops.
While leadership worship needs to stop, we also must have increasingly high standards for our leaders. We don’t get the likes of Devin Nunes into positions of leadership because our standards are just too high. They are there because the standards are too low. And every day they hold positions of leadership, the bar gets lower.
We need to continually improve leadership, constantly striving for better. It is an issue that is just too important to be bashful about.