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Leader development: There is no theory of ‘everything’


Mike Levy talks to Professor David Day about the theory behind leader development.

Is there a single theory to explain how to develop an effective leader? Professor David Day, the Professor of leadership and management at the University of Western Australia Business School in Perth, thinks not. This is why he and two colleagues have recently published 'An Integrative Approach to Leader Development'. The key word here is 'integrative'. His work focuses on integrating several fields of inquiry in trying to figure out how individuals become better leaders. Day and his colleagues have attempted to introduce a more rigorous approach by integrating findings from a wide range of social science research not least from the field of adult development including important work on identity development, reflective judgement and critical thinking.

"Whether the person leading you is good or lousy, the ability to learn is a critical feature of leader development."

Much current thinking, he believes, is not at all clear. Says Day, "The US army has a great deal of doctrine about leader development." What he means by 'doctrine' is a cumulative set of beliefs about leader development but he says, without much theoretical basis. This he believes also applies at a wider level. "There are tons of theories about leadership but not much out there on leader development," argues Day.

He stresses that the difference between 'leadership' and 'leader development' is crucial. The former is concerned with leading a team – working with others. It requires social interaction. "But most of what we talk about when we discuss leadership development is really leader development." This distinction, he argues, is far from semantic. 'Leader development' is about the growth of an individual in the role of leader. When the leader applies what skills, competencies and personal attributes he or she has acquired – then that becomes the social interaction of 'leadership'. Day argues that we often confuse the two. This is not surprising as the boundary can be a fuzzy one. "Even a world-class leader needs people to lead. Put them on a desert island and there isn't much leadership they can do." There is a view that anyone can be developed into a leader but this misses the point. Leadership is a dynamic process. We are all both leaders and followers depending on the context. The dynamics of leadership are such that on a moment by moment basis, someone might be exercising leadership: influencing others and setting direction. The next moment they might be the led – taking direction from others.

Day believes that the way people learn from watching others take a lead is an important influence on how an individual develops as a leader. "Research supports the notion that experience of being directed by someone who is an effective leader can be a potent force for individual development." This isn't always a positive learning experience though. "I have talked to more leaders who tell me they are more likely to learn what not to do. They have been subjected to ineffective, toxic or just plain lousy leaders."

The ability to learn

Whether the person leading you is good or lousy, the ability to learn is a critical feature of leader development, says Day. "If at some point you stop learning your effectiveness as a leader is limited to that moment in time." So what makes a good learner? Day says that it seems to be someone who can combine a performance and learning orientation. If you are working in a fast-paced corporate world, you might be wholly focused on performance. This means that as a leader you might be more concerned with displaying competence rather than developing it. This makes for a poor learner who is less likely to develop as a leader.

"Effective leader development is eclectic: it happens through a variety of forces at different levels. "

Can any good learner become a competent leader? Day doubts this. His work shows that effective leader development is eclectic: it happens through a variety of forces at different levels. On the surface, we can observe and measure a leader's ability through a variety of well-established competency criteria. That may be necessary but it is not sufficient to understand how leaders grow. To really understand how someone develops as a leader we must, says Day, understand what is going on underneath – what is affecting the individual's motivation for ongoing learning and practice as a leader. To understand that we must look at adult development. "We need to know how someone is developing as a person and not just a leader," says Day.

Identity and self regulation help to explain how an individual becomes motivated to learn and develop as a better leader. Identity – an important strand in organisational behaviour – is concerned with how people see themselves. Identity is a multi-faceted thing. Someone who has an identity as a leader also identifies as a son, daughter, mother, father, manager, team member and so on. "Once you start thinking of yourself as a leader, you are more likely to be motivated to learn how to do it well," argues Day. Practising the art of effective leadership also feedbacks to identity – the better you are at being a developing leader, the more you take on the role of leader. It is a positive spiral.

Of course, the opposite can happen: you fail to meet some objective as a leader – not being able to influence others for instance, and you internalise this by believing that your identity as a leader is on very shaky ground. "Once a person's identity as a leader is damaged, they are likely to stop learning and developing." 'Self regulation' refers to how the individual reacts to a perceived failure (or success). He or she may decide to give up identifying themselves as an effective leader. This act of self regulation is also likely to be linked to perceptions of what it takes to become a good leader. Day says that to become expert in anything can take up to 10,000 hours of learning and practice. An effective leader is likely to be one who is aware that learning to be a first-class leader takes time, patience and an ability to learn from mistakes rather than identifying them as abject failure. So much depends on what is going at a psychological and social level. It is akin, says Day, to learning to play a musical instrument: getting to concert level depends on how much you practice deal with setbacks.

Day is concerned with predicting how far an individual can develop as a leader before hitting a plateau of competence. There is an important role for coaches and trainers here. "Feedback is a critically important stage in the learning process. Without feedback it is virtually impossible to develop as a leader. You get feedback everyday from others but having a designated feedback provider helping you build self awareness and interpret the mass of data you get is crucial. There can be a tendency to reject the feedback you don't want to hear. A coach can help someone to make sense of the mass of often conflicting feedback and hence help them move forward as a leader." A bad coach is someone who wants to be the coachee's friend and is reluctant to deal with the bad news. Day is concerned about coaches who work only on an individual's strengths. He or she must also focus on weaknesses – only then will true learning happen. "Overplaying strengths can turn them into weaknesses," says Day. An effective coach has a good understanding of human psychology. The coach also has the ability to accept that there are no easy ways to leader development, and certainly no single explain-all theories.

Book details:
Day, D. V., Harrison, M. M., & Halpin, S. M. (2009). An integrative approach to leader development: Connecting adult development, identity, and expertise. New York: Routledge.

Mike Levy is a freelance journalist and copywriter with 20 years' experience. He is also a writing and presentations coach. He especially loves playwriting and creating resources for schools. Mike is director of Write Start. For more information go to:

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Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

Read more from Jon Kennard

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