Leadership Development: Knowing, Doing, Being

Often leaders look to training to fill the leadership gap in their organizations.  They identify the best and brightest, the “high potentials”. They then send them to extensive leadership training to become better leaders. Ta da! You now have a trained “leader”. This common approach to leadership development is doomed to fail because training is only the beginning of leadership development.

Catalyst, a women’s leadership think tank, believes that leadership development follows a 10/20/70 effectiveness rule: 10% of development comes from training; 20% comes from mentoring and 70% comes from leading big, visible projects with stretch goals, big budgets and high risk.  Thus the majority of development comes from “doing” leadership rather than “knowing” leadership.

Leadership training needs to be embedded in a broader approach to leadership development by identifying organizational needs, gaps in leadership skills and projects or positions for employees to develop their leadership skills. Only then does it make sense to provide leadership training in the context of that next stretch assignment.

I often find that many of my students “know” what the concept of positioning means, but when I ask them to actually use the concept in the development of a real world strategy, they struggle to use it. Why? Because knowing is different than doing. You have to know something before you can do it.  But to really learn it, you have to do it.

Many organizations send people to training before there is a clear plan where they will use these newly acquired leadership skills. Thus, newly trained employees can sit for months or even years without the opportunity to practice their leadership skills. The result is over-trained, over-mentored employees who are frustrated because they can’t put their training to work. People need the opportunity to practice their newly learned skills. Training is not a strand alone solution, it needs to be linked to succession planning.

Many people believe that individuals need to have a personal identity of “leader” before they can lead others. In other words, you have to have the confidence to believe that you are a leader before you can lead. I believe just the reverse. Behaviour is what changes beliefs. In other words, if I act like a leader long enough, I will begin to think that I am a leader. We develop the confidence to lead through the experience of having successfully led. “Being” a leader is the result of “doing” leadership.

The bottom line: Leadership development starts with knowing about leadership, proceeds to doing leadership, and ultimately results in being a leader. But relying exclusively on training to develop leaders is like assuming that vanilla is the only ingredient in a vanilla cake – it’s bound to be a disaster.


14 replies »

  1. Hi Colleen,
    Thanks for the 10/20/70 breakdown of the genesis of leadership development. The numbers are new to me but they sure resonate with my experience. In the leadership development work I do, I try to follow a cocooning rhythm – time away from work in a nice setting to learn new behaviours; followed by time on the job rich with opportunity to practice new behaviours and develop the confidence and identity as leader; back to cocoon for reflecting on the practice and introduction of more ideas/ behaviours. I agree absolutely that it is behaviour that changes our beliefs and that training is only part of the equation. I would add that if people who’ve been sent on training are not being utilized, the responsiblity only partly belongs to the organization. Part of leadership is finding opportunities to test and stretch yourself, not waiting for these opportunities to be sanctioned by the organization. There are endless, continuous opportunities to practice leadership by anyone so inclined. Leadership without authority is a great lead-in to leadership with authority.

  2. Many organizations think leadership development is about training. I really like your point that lack of opportunities to practice leadership are only partly the responsibility of the organization. One of the most interesting findings in leadership studies is that often organizations make assumptions about what an employee wants, especially for women. (Oh, she’s a mom, she doesn’t have the commitment; doesn’t want to transfer, won’t want more responsibility). Thus, we need to ask for opportunities to develop our leadership skills, and if they aren’t available, identify the leadership gaps.
    Thanks for the great insights Annemarie.

  3. This is fantastic! I am on board with your thoughts and believe that leadership often just happens to us. We may say we want to be a leader, but it’s really hard to force the passion necessary to really live it. It takes so much time, effort, and dedication, and it’s what you want to do because it’s your cause. That takes time to find and develop. I speak for myself, as I am a post-secondary educator and have set out to figure out how to instill a desire, a passion, a will, a drive to think, and further, apply. Keep the great articles coming!

  4. Very interesting. At J&J, how we looked at development was skills, behaviors and experiences. Not too far from your venn diagram…of knowing, doing and being.

    For skils, we dialed up the training, but even then some people have natural strength in certain skills. We felt that experiences was our role as leaders to ensure people had a balance of experiences to round them up. But the great separator for me is always leadership behaviors, especially as people moved up. Yes, it’s the “softer” side ,but upon observation of a leader, it becomes more obvious of who can be a Director or VP.

  5. The part that I always struggle with is the evaluation of leadership behaviours in the workplace. We talk about leadership, but don’t do a great job of defining what specific behaviours we are looking for. Kind of like the definition of pornography – I’ll know it when I see it.

    • Could that be because we often judge leadership on the output, rather than the input (behaviours)? Is it at all possible to define good leadership by specifying behaviours (alone)?

  6. You have to map it out, not only for judging but so that the leaders know what is expected of them. When you put pen to paper, the best of the best rise to the top and you’re able to judge on a regular basis. Quarterly check ins are crucial to making it an on-going dialogue. Promotions should never happen out of the blue, never be a surprise. And when you just use a blank judgement, it becomes the leader that most resembles you who always gets promoted. And that’s not always a good thing in balancing out the teams.

    Here is my attempt at mapping out the behaviors we want for Brand Leaders.


  7. Absolutely agree — the knowing, doing, being process is a constant loop. Reflection is a key to continual development as a leader. I’m in the midst of reading Bruce Alvolio’s book “Full Range Leadership” where he talks about the iterative nature of the loop. In fact, self-awareness and development are key leadership traits.

    Thanks for sharing. I look forward to reading your blog.

    • An iterative process indeed! Committing to that might imply you have to be humble to a reasonable degree though. After all, you will have to admit you don’t know all the answers. At most you might know some of the questions. You might need to rely on authority or mandate to get people to trust you as a leader because you cannot seduce or convince people to buy into your answer (because you don’t have it). Very justified and probably effective, but will it fit in most of our compant cultures we have at present? Reminds me of a quote by Bertrand Russel: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.”

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