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There seems to be a leadership crisis everywhere these days.

Kenneth S. Rhee

Kenneth S. Rhee

We frequently talk about a need for outstanding leadership and shake our heads on our leaders’ behaviors that defy our own sensibilities.

Why is this happening? I have been helping my students and clients develop leadership for more than 25 years, and every time we talk about leadership, they all chime in first and say it is simply a matter of common sense. If leadership only involves common sense, why is there such a dearth of leadership these days?

There are several reasons why even though effective leadership may seem like common sense, it is not a common practice. First of all, it is hard to demonstrate effective leadership on a full-time basis. Nobody is perfect, and it would be impossible for any human being to be a perfect leader. So, asking someone to demonstrate effective behaviors full time would be impossible. It is truly easier said than done.

Another reason is that there are multiple factors that contribute to leaders’ effectiveness. It is necessary but not sufficient to merely possess the skills needed to be a leader. It is one thing to possess skills, but it is another to demonstrate those skills optimally.

Three factors must converge for effective performance to happen. Appropriate competency must be demonstrated along with the right magnitude and correct timing. So, even if someone who knows how to demonstrate the skill, that person would not achieve effective outcomes unless he or she demonstrates it in the right magnitude and with correct timing.

For example, let’s take a leader who is highly persuasive — with the competency to convince people. However, if that person demonstrates it too much or does it in a devious way, he or she would be either called dictatorial or manipulative.

Even if you are demonstrating it with the right magnitude, if you are not demonstrating the competency at the right moment, then its outcome would not be effective as a result. So, the person continues to be persuasive while the ship has already sailed and the person might be classified as “stubborn,” not effective. It is difficult to master the leadership competency on one dimension, it is truly more difficult to master two other dimensions of effectiveness.

So, are we doomed? Can we develop effective leaders? Effective leadership can be developed, but it does not happen easily.

Someone might ask what have all the universities or business schools done to develop our leaders. It seems our higher education has failed to develop effective leadership. If we had, we would not be having a leadership crisis at the moment.

There are two lessons learned from my involvement in leadership development. The first is for each one of us to demonstrate a leadership mindset. Instead of asking what would I do in a situation as a manager, ask what would you do as a leader? This is critical given how our mind or brains work. In our evolutionary path, self-preservation has been baked into our brains so that we tend to play safe or conservative when things are uncertain or ambiguous.

Given our current turbulent and transitory business environment, this is not what we want our leaders to do — play it safe. This is where a difference between leadership and management also emerges. The science of management is based on rational boundaries of control — the rise of science in the 20th century influenced the field of management to take on more rational and measurement-focused ways of conducting one’s business. Thus, order over imagination, measurement over intuition, and control over latitude are prevailing management thoughts these days.

The second is to apply our developmental mindset instead of performance mindset: Ask how do I develop these leadership competencies instead of asking how do I perform these? Effective performance is a byproduct of development, not a goal in itself. If we focus too much on performance, then it might stunt our learning and development as a result. The first step starts with self-assessment. What level of mastery do I currently demonstrate in this competency? Do I want to develop this? Second is to set a goal for developing the competency.

Finally, there is the importance of practice. The old saying “practice makes perfect” doesn’t quite work here since it assumes that what you are practicing is correct and repetition will improve your competency. Here I would modify the statement to “practice with feedback makes perfect.” In other words, if you receive feedback and make alterations to your practice, this iterative process is what makes you much more skillful in developing the competency.

If a person embodies both leadership and developmental mindsets in pursuit of his or her leadership, then the mastery of leadership can take place. However, it is a long journey, and only to those who are both mindful and disciplined (persistence) can leadership development happen.

Kenneth S. Rhee is associate dean and professor of management at the College of Business Administration, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. For the past 30 years, he has been an educator, consultant and researcher focusing on leadership and human development. He has worked with Fortune 500 companies, presented in international conferences and published in major research journals on topics ranging from emotional intelligence to self-directed learning.


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