The Most Important Part Of Leadership Development

The Most Important Part Of Leadership Development

Summary Points:

1. Leader development is critical to develop new skill sets for getting things done through others

2. Communication and decision making are the core skills for leaders

3. Most leadership development does not go deep enough in terms of skill and knowledge development

4. The skill of emotional regulation is the underlying need for leaders to maximize their effectiveness in communication and decision making

Why Invest in Leadership Development?

Let’s start first with capturing the essence of leadership – getting things done through other people.

So, what must a leader do well to get things done through other people?

Prioritize the work and align the team around those priorities, delegate and empower the employees to get things done, and foster collaboration between team members so they produce more as a team than any of them could produce on their own.

So – that’s a lot of people stuff! Based almost entirely in decision making and communication skills.

I’ll be explicit – for the most part, leadership requires a completely different set of skills than individual contributors. This is especially tricky given that many organizations promote people into leadership roles based on their skills as individual contributors.

In other words, executives regularly ask people to step into roles that require a transformational change in their behavior but don’t often equip them with those skills.

This is one reason why it’s valuable to start developing leaders early. The primary skills required for effective leadership (communication and decision making) are also incredibly useful to have as an individual contributor.

Providing emerging leaders access to leadership development opportunities is a critical way to keep the talent in your organization prepared for their future – and their present.

That’s one of the reasons we created an online learning platform, which creates opportunities for leaders at all levels to begin to better understand human communication and how it is actually quite simple, even if it’s not easy.

Why is not necessarily easy? Because the skills we develop in leaders require deeper levels of change. If you have ever seen somebody participate in a leadership development opportunity, only to return and seem the same, it’s probably because the development did not go deep enough. True growth is always emotional. Shifts at an emotional level create lasting change, because all behavior is driven by emotion.


Developing Effective Leadership Skills

So, we know we want to help leaders develop communication and decision-making skills. At the core of this is emotional regulation skills – allow me to explain why.

Delegating and Giving Feedback. You want leaders to have the communication skills to make clear requests of the people on the team. This might sound simple, but many leaders fear asking people to do things – they don’t want to seem “bossy” or controlling. They allow a fear of being disliked or being accused of micromanaging to stop them from making clear requests.

Clear requests could be as simple as delegating tasks or as tricky as making a request that a team member use a different tone when communicating (this is where a lot of leaders let their own fears and emotions stop them from giving clear and honest feedback).

Accepting Feedback. Most humans experience a little anxiety when somebody says “I want to give you some feedback” – because we’re hard wired to want to feel good about ourselves, and constructive or negative feedback can threaten that sense of self-esteem. But you know that you want leaders to have strong listening skills, especially in moments of receiving feedback. Staying open and calm during critical conversations is the best way to build trust, and keep the communication channels open. Everybody knows that as soon as people are afraid to be honest with a leader, trust, engagement, productivity, and collaboration drop.

Listening Skills. In addition to listening effectively while receiving feedback, it is critical that leaders develop the skills to listen to more than the words that their employees are saying. If leaders let stress mount, emotions take over and the ability to listen takes a hit. Leaders start to fill in their own stories about what the employee is really saying, what they’re asking for, how they are meant to respond.

Being able to stay calm and regulate emotions will enable a leader to cut through the noise of a verbose employee “rant session” to establish what she really cares about and hit those deadlines.

Or having the listening skills to empathize and action plan with a team member when he feels so overloaded that he’s about to burn-out – so you can keep top talent.

This may sound simple, but remember most of us allow ourselves to get stressed out on the job, and even basic listening and communication skills are often the first thing to go out the window.

Leadership Development is From the Inside Out

This is why you want leaders to develop emotional regulation skills. It’s sort of a fancy way of saying you want a leader to be able to recognize and identify when he is feeling an emotion, what the emotion is, what story in his head is driving that emotion, and how he can lessen the emotional response so his logical brain can make decisions and communicate.

Most leaders will make excuses for themselves when they feel stressed out, and they will fall into tendencies to blame others or play the victim. But masterful leaders are courageous. They slow down their responses and practice vulnerability, especially when managing conflict or other difficult situations.

Masterful leaders build trust through the courage to speak their truth, even when, or especially when it’s hard, like…
…telling a team member why they’re not getting the promotion.
Or telling an employee the team won’t be implementing their idea.
Or giving feedback to an employee about their performance on the job.
Or practicing empathy with an emotional employee while simultaneously holding boundaries about what is ok and not ok.

Masterful leaders demonstrate flexibility in their behavior. Showing flexibility in one’s behavior is based almost entirely on their own sense of fear and anxiety – but this is on a subconscious level. Effective leadership development will dive into the emotions that underlie behavior so that leaders can show up differently – and maximize their effectiveness.



Even if they prefer to be in control, they can easily flex to be less controlling when the most effective approach is to delegate. Or even if they prefer to be more private, they can easily stretch themselves to be more open in order to make a meaningful connection with a new employee. Even if they prefer to include everybody, they’re willing to make the hard decision to exclude certain team members from the exciting new project, because operations must go on.

Which brings us to decision making. The main obstacles to effective decision making are fear and absence of information. Again – it requires courage – because with new information, that decision could seem sub-optimal down the road. Decision making requires courage because sometimes people will feel disappointed with the decision. And making the time and investing the energy to help the team process through those decisions requires stamina and openness.

So, what are the biggest obstacles that gets in the way of communication and decision making?

  •  Lack of self-awareness
  • Lack of emotional regulation skills

And actually, self-awareness is critical to emotional regulation skills. So truly – the main element to improve communication and decision-making skills – is self-awareness.


How Do We Effectively Develop Leadership Skills? 

When you think of self-awareness, you might think about a leader who knows her strengths and weaknesses. Or maybe you think about a leader who understands the impact she has on others – like understanding if her behavior is empowering others or intimidating them. Or if her behavior is fostering openness or squashing communication.

This level of self-awareness is critical, but the level beneath is where the most transformation happens.

Really strong leadership development programs will help leaders understand what drives them to behave the way they do.

We all have times when we feel like we can’t control our behavior, even if we think we objectively know how we want to act. We know the effective thing is to stay calm and ask questions, but when we get triggered, we make excuses like “I’m really stressed out right now” or “Oh come on, anybody would be annoyed by that!”

But the reality is that it is a leader’s ability to understand and regulate emotions that are critical to facilitate effective communication and decision making. For transformational change to happen, self-awareness must get deep.

Leaders must develop self-awareness in terms of what triggers their emotions, uncovering the stories and re-writing them so they can rewire their brains.

It includes uncovering the leader’s self-concept – how do you they see themselves, consciously and sub-consciously?

Most leadership development programs fail to go deep enough. I used to teach for an Executive MBA Program, and the former director was a strong behaviorist, which meant he wanted to focus exclusively on the behaviors that leaders exhibit, and not go any deeper. He wanted to rely almost exclusively on the DISC assessment and tell leaders how to behave with others based on DISC profiles.

There are problems with this, however.

First of all – it requires a tremendous amount of emotional labor to behave in a way that is inconsistent with how we feel. It leads to burnout.

Secondly – behaving differently than how we feel is basically the definition of inauthenticity. Even when we can’t quite put our fingers on it – humans pick up on inauthenticity. At best it leaves us with a sense unease, and at worst, we walk away having lost total trust in the relationship.

Third – this approach lacks co-creation. Instead of relying on cookie cutter assessments, masterful leaders co-create relationships with each of their employees through real conversations. Involve the employees in the process of designing the communication patterns and flow.

Like anything – no short cut is as effective as “the way” – so making the time to understand oneself on a deeper level is how to create meaningful change in the leader’s ability to show up for her team, or put simply – how to develop a leader.

Showing 2 comments
  • Justin VanWinkle

    I really appreciate that you dig in beyond the personality assessments. This article really resonates with me and encourages me greatly. Thanks!

    • Laura Gallaher

      Thanks Justin!! Personality assessments have some value, but they can be limiting at times, too! Thanks for your comment 🙂