For decades, leadership development has been a significant focus of businesses worldwide. Billions of dollars and millions of hours have been invested in a wide range of activities to build the capacity and effectiveness of those charged with guiding and directing organizations and the people within them.
But today, many organizations are implementing a small change in semantics that could lead to big changes in terms of their leadership development efforts. They’re dropping the ‘ship’ and focusing on leader development instead.
What difference can the absence of four letters in a word make? A lot.
Leadership development in many organizations is a function, a set of processes and activities aimed at turning out cadre after cadre of ready, willing and able individuals who’ll keep the business running. It’s a well-oiled machine that operates on metrics and margins. It generally espouses a global set of competencies or capacities that all leaders must learn and master – all in service of the needs of the business.
Leader development, on the other hand, is personal. The focus is not on building organizational capability by generating what some might interpret as an undifferentiated pool of talent; rather, it’s about growing the individual in unique ways that complement their strengths, talents, and interests. It also targets key areas for improvement that will support the leader as well as the business.
Transitioning from leadership to leader development shifts the focus ever so slightly to the individual and in so doing creates a dynamic tension – even an obligation – to the leader investing his or her time in development. It allows – even encourages – those charged with growing talent within an organization to focus on the needs of a talent pool of one (the individual) rather than a broader population and to craft tailored plans and solutions for each unique leader.
A human resources director recently summed up this sentiment: “When I used to think about leadership development, I came at it from the perspective of the needs of the organization. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still focused on the business. But when I think about leader development, people’s faces pop into my mind. You can’t help but approach the work differently when it feels that personal.”
The shift from leadership to leader development infuses additional humanity into the process. And this humanity elevates the importance of – and generates more opportunities for – a focus on the soft skills (which, let’s face it, are the hard ones anyway). Trust, communication, and empathy take on greater significance when the focus is on the leader versus the broader capacity.
Putting the object of development at the center of the equation clearly benefits the leader; but it also benefits the organization. Buy-in, accountability, and commitment – they all grow. Individuals can sense the shift. They appreciate the genuine attention to their development needs. And they have more skin in the game as a result.
So, as organizations struggle to elevate engagement, build motivation and commitment, and compete in today’s hyper-competitive environment, perhaps a small semantics change should be considered. Perhaps it’s time to jump ‘ship’ on leadership development… and set sail in the direction of leader development instead.