The Three Dimensions of Leadership Development

Everyone has an opinion on leadership. Amazon offers over 300,000 books with “leadership” in the title and about 4 new books per day are published by aspiring gurus or established academics. It seems like leadership commands as much curiosity as religion. Why is that?

I think there are three reasons.

First, readers are looking for different solutions for their particular needs. Some want to learn the secrets of a one-minute manager. Others want an in-depth scientific analysis of the leadership behaviors that transform good organizations into great organizations. Still others just want to hear stories of how some teams outperform the competition.

Second, leadership requirements are constantly changing. What worked in the 50’s no longer works in a globally-competitive, constantly changing environment in which the workforce is striving for more elusive and fulfilling values than toiling endless hours to accumulate greater wealth and achieve a grander title. As market conditions and standards constantly shift, today’s leaders need descriptive, predictive, and proscriptive models to enable continuous creativity, alignment, and changeability. That technology is rapidly evolving and, when it matures, leaders will be facing a whole new set of requirements.
From “Industrial Leadership,” 1916, by Henry Laurence Ganatt | Source: Internet Archive Book Images

Third, leadership can be described in many ways. Therefore, there is an abundance of people who are willing to offer their descriptions. What is missing is a systematic approach that enables leaders to translate their descriptions into predictions and proscriptions for moving forward.

So what makes me think that my opinions are more valid than the 300,000 and growing opinions already in the bookstores? They may not be, but I do have certain chops in this area. For what it’s worth, I’ve taught leadership at Harvard, Duke, and Cornell; I’ve been responsible for leadership development in three major corporations; I’ve written 10 books on leadership development (thus contributing to an over-crowded space); I’ve coached leaders in over 200 organizations; I’ve logged my 10,000 hours of training; I’ve had the honor and privilege of working with several genius mentors; and I’ve designed leadership development programs for some of the most respected organizations in the world. Does that mean that I’ve discovered the holy grail of leadership? No, but it does mean I’ve done my homework and have stories to tell.

Let me net it out: leadership development programs need to be designed to close the gaps identified in the leadership assessment I described in a previous post, The Seven Dimensions of Leadership Assessment. And, simplistically stated, leadership development consists of three components: training, coaching and deployment—in that order. First, leaders need to acquire essential skills. Second, leaders need coaching in the application of those skills. Third, they need to be deployed in assignments that enable them to transfer their learning to multiple challenges and opportunities. Let’s take one at a time. Then, I will turn to the future. 

Training: There are an abundance of training vendors vying for the opportunity to teach their brand of leadership. Some of the most prominent leadership development firms are Center for Creative Leadership, DDI, Ken Blanchard Companies, Wilson Learning, Forum, Covey, Linkage, and SkillSoft. All of these companies were rated in the top 20 for 2015. Universities are also into the leadership development business. Wharton, Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Michigan and many others all offer pricey leadership development programs. To me, independent of the vendor, the critical meta-skills that all leaders need fall into three broad categories: Identify, Build, and Drive. Identify involves strategic thinking. Build involves interpersonal relating. Drive involves planning and execution. Thinking, relating, planning, and executing are the foundation skills of leadership.

Leaders create the vision, develop the strategies, build bench strength, and move the organization forward, i.e. they identify, build, and drive or think, relate, plan, and execute – whichever you prefer. According to research conducted by the Ken Blanchard Companies, the critical leadership skills are the ability to communicate (relate), people management (relate), empathy and emotional intelligence (relate), the application of appropriate direction and support (think, plan, and execute), and valuing employee input (relate). All of these skills were found to be essential to build an environment based on trust in which people are allowed to flourish and achieve their full potential.

Another study, conducted by leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, identified the skills leaders needed to succeed. They asked more than 330,000 people to rank the top four competencies from a list of 16 key leadership skills. The top ten were:

  1. Inspires and motivates others (thinking and relating)
  2. Displays high integrity and honesty (relating)
  3. Solves problems and analyzes issues (thinking)
  4. Drives for results (executing)
  5. Communicates powerfully and prolifically (relating)
  6. Builds relationships (relating)
  7. Displays technical and professional expertise (thinking)
  8. Displays a strategic perspective (thinking)
  9. Develops others (relating)
  10. Innovates (thinking)

As you can see, most leadership development programs are variations on the same themes. Some present the ideas in more clever, substantive, and entertaining ways than others, but they all boil down to the same few factors: can leaders IDENTIFY the right ideas, strategies, people, and priorities to accomplish their purpose and vision; can they BUILD the right teams, programs, processes, products, platforms and environment that make it possible to achieve the mission; and can they DRIVE for success through purposeful planning and execution. In short, how well do they think, relate, plan, and execute. It seems to me that leadership development programs should be designed around the core skills of thinking, relating, planning, and executing with tailored applications for specific organizational and marketplace requirements. These applications would address the critical needs identified by Blanchard, Zenger, Folkman and others such as communications, people management, inspiring and motivating others, solving problems, etc.

The best selling leadership development program in the world, Situational Leadership II, developed by Dr. Pat Zigarmi, incorporates all of these elements. In short, the course teachers leaders how to IDENTIFY the right blend of supportive and directive behaviors based on the commitment and capability of the person with whom they are dealing in order to BUILD strong relationships and plans and DRIVE for effective results.

In the future, I believe leadership development programs will focus increasingly on being more mindful and generative. Individuals will need to carve out more space in their lives to reflect and to make more conscious decisions. Organizations will need to create multi-dimensional spaces that enable and empower people to see the interdependencies of everything they do and to generate new possibilities for themselves, their organizations, their customers, and the world. We are entering a new era of “space” exploration. But you can’t go there without the skills; thus, training comes first.

Coaching: It seems like everyone is a coach these days. Coaching certification programs are popping up as fast as new books on leadership. Most certification programs teach some fundamental skills: ask provocative questions, re-frame issues by listening and clarifying, encourage self-awareness, and push for ownership. These skills are the building blocks for effective coaching. What most programs miss, however, is the initiative dimension. Coaches are discouraged from giving their point of view. To me, the most important ingredient in an effective coaching relationship is the perspective the coach brings to the encounter. Personally, if I hire a coach, I want to benefit from that person’s experience and perspective. I don’t have to buy everything the coach says, but I want to know what they think and how they feel.

In my experience, there are several key elements of effective coaching: the introductory interview, the assessment (personality tests and 360 feedback), the feedback summary, the development plan, on-going, meaningful conversations/check-ins, and a progress report at the end of the designated coaching period.

In the introductory interview, the coach learns about the client’s dreams and aspirations, her life history, significant events that shaped his life, goals for the coaching, and the desired rhythm for working together, e.g. monthly check-ins and boundaries, The coach also answers any questions the client may have about the coaching process and overviews the 360 feedback questions. I always find it is helpful to ask clients if there are any particular questions they would like me to probe during the interviews.   Most importantly during this introductory interview, the coach needs to determine the nature of the leader’s job. Does the job primarily require thinking, relating, planning, or executing? What is the level of functioning of the team: mostly leaders, contributors, participants, observers, or detractors? The answers to those questions help to clarity the leader’s challenges.

The assessment enables the coach to determine the gap between the leader’s requirements and his or her capabilities. As a result of the leadership assessment, the coach should have a deep understanding of the clients’ strengths and weaknesses; their relative capabilities to identify strategic opportunities, build people and programs, and drive for results; the extent to which they are focused on self-development, team development, organizational growth, and customer success; their default decision making style; the impact of their leadership skills on team members at all levels; and how well they build trust.

After confidential interviews with at least four direct reports, four peers, and four Senior leaders and/or customers, the coach creates a feedback summary and meets with the client to discuss the findings. It is important to emphasize in this feedback session that the results don’t necessarily represent themes or truth. It is up to the client to decide what is accurate and what they think represents possibilities for change. Even if clients decide not to change behaviors suggested in the 360 feedback, they need to know how their behaviors are being perceived by others.

The development plan summarizes the strengths and opportunities the client agrees on during the feedback summary.   The idea is to leverage strengths and manage weaknesses. What I have found to be most useful is to identify 3-4 behaviors (strengths and opportunities for development) that would make a significant difference if they were tweaked and modified by having the client become more conscious and intentional about them. In short, the goal is to help clients become more mindful leaders.

Regular check-ins keep the behaviors front of mind for the leader. Simply by asking the leader how conscious and intentional they have been about the three behaviors encourages the leader to stay focused. The check-ins give the coach and leader time to process critical issues as they occur, so that the leader can see the benefits of applying the behaviors. The heart of the coaching relationship is to engage in meaningful conversations with the leader about the opportunities and challenges he or she is facing and how he or she is using the skills required to address them.

After a pre-determined period of time (usually 6 months to a year), it is important to interview a sub-set of the people interviewed during the initial 360 process to determine if people have perceived any changes on the 3 behaviors. Conducting the follow-up interviews for the progress report gives the coach a chance to reinforce positive changes and to identify additional suggestions for continued growth.

The coaching component of a comprehensive leadership development program can be evaluated by assessing how well each of the six phases have been delivered: the introductory interview, the assessment, the feedback summary, the development plan, check-ins, and a progress report at the end of the designated coaching period on the application of skills and targeted behaviors.

Deploying: Last, but not least, deployment is the third leg of the leadership development stool. Deploying people into stretch assignments provides them with the experience and perspective required to take on larger leadership roles. It would seem, at first glance, that deployment would be a simple process. If fact, it is not. Deployment depends on systematic succession planning as well as fair and effective performance management. (Actually, I prefer the term performance and development to performance management, but I didn’t want to confuse the reader.)

Performance management is a process designed to ensure that people get a fair and accurate review of their performance and development over the course of a year. An effective performance management system not only provides people with constructive, impartial, and objective feedback on their behaviors and results so that they can continue to learn and grow but also solicits inputs from multiple sources that inform compensation decisions. At the heart of performance management are the meaningful, unbiased conversations in which decision makers engage to determine reasonable pay and benefits. Typically, those conversations revolve around a 3×3 grid with performance on the vertical axis and potential on the horizontal access. Employees can thus be placed in one of the nine boxes with low performance and low potential in the lower left box and high performance and high potential in the upper right box. The question is, on what criteria are the rating decisions for performance and potential based? This is where meaningful conversation occur . . . or not.

For me, the criteria for high performance should be an equal combination of business results and leadership behaviors. Business results should be based on a quantitative assessment of performance against pre-set objectives. Ideally, Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Ratable, and Time-bound (SMART) objectives are set at the beginning of the year. Then, at the end of the year it is a fairly straightforward process to determine how well the objectives were met. Leadership behaviors should be based on a qualitative assessment of performance on defined leadership competencies. Those competencies should relate to job requirements and be defined and scaled in order to clarify expectations upfront. Performance ratings, therefore, depend equally on what gets accomplished and how it gets accomplished.

The criteria for high potential should involve a meaningful conversation about learning agility, experience, and motivation. In today’s world, changeability (the ability to learn and adapt quickly) is a critical success factor for any leader. Clearly, experience must also play a big role in potential. That’s why it is important to think carefully about stretch assignments so that future leaders can accumulate the kind of experiences that will prepare them for future roles. Motivation is a more nebulous criterion, but the discussion should revolve around the level of commitment the person demonstrates as well what they are committed to: self-aggrandizement, team development, organizational performance, client success, or community growth.

If there are meaningful conversations at the beginning of the year about goals and expectations, during the year about progress, and at the end of the year on performance and potential, then employees can feel more confident that the distribution within the nine box grid was a result of a fair and thoughtful process.

Assuming an organization has an effective performance management process, then the succession planning process simply requires adding a “z” axis of readiness for a targeted job. Succession planning is a process designed to ensure an organization has strong bench strength for critical positions and to enable leaders to make good decisions about how to invest scarce resources to develop key talent.

The succession planning discussion thus revolves around whether or not the candidate is “ready now,” ready in 6 months to 2 years, or may be ready or not after the right job assignments in 2 years or more. After all employees are mapped into this 3x3x3 model, wise decisions can be made about how to invest in each person’s development with particular emphasis on the right assignments for high performing, high potential, “ready-now” employees. That’s how intelligent organizations build bench strength.

Deployment can have a more powerful impact on a leader’s development than coaching or training, but it is critical that those decisions are based on effective performance management and succession planning processes. In my experience, most organizations have defined the processes, but they lack the meaningful conversations that yield the greatest results.

In summary, leadership development is a combination of training, coaching and deployment. Currently, the ability to engage in meaningful conversations is what differentiates the most effective leadership development programs from the least effective ones.   In the future, leadership development programs will need to focus on helping leaders become not only more skillful, but also more mindful and generative. In this new era of “space” exploration, it will be the skilled, conscious and creative leaders who win the race to the bottom of their souls as well as the top of their potential.

Great leaders see the changes coming on the horizon, and they constantly push their organizations to be in the right place and right space when those changes happen.



Also published on Medium.

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Bruce Appelson

Hey Rick, Once again you incorporate and define leadership development in a new frame. You never cease to amaze me with your knowledge and experience. For me, you were my best mentor and teacher. I wish you and your family only the best! Brude Man


[…] the course of my career, I helped companies as large as Johnson & Johnson develop systems for assessing leadership potential. I have also had responsibility for staffing in major corporations. Based on that experience and an […]


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