Pursuing Effective Leadership: The Developing Leader

What does it take to be an effective leader? 

What mediates leadership effectiveness in a particular context? 

Are there universally effective practices? 

How do people learn important leadership skills and perspectives? 

How can people develop the skills and perspectives necessary to be effective in leadership roles? 

Do we mean the same thing when we say: to learn or to develop? 

What develops in the development of a leader, of a person? 

Can we stimulate development of or in leaders? 

What could be the necessary ingredients for stimulating development in leaders? 

What factors impact leaders’ development; personal, cultural, societal, or other? 

Leadership is a social phenomenon in groups, teams, and organizations.

Leadership entails common ground, common purpose, and common practices. Practices create beliefs, and beliefs create practices;

There are best practices for developing individuals in the leadership context, developing shared leadership beliefs and practices, and developing collective capacity for leadership among people with shared work.

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) provides a framework for understanding concepts, a leadership model, and a leader development model.

Intensive feedback in a supportive environment furthers the impact of development programs on participants. 

Our research interest is how managers learn, grow, and change throughout their careers from formal programs, challenges in their working and nonworking lives, relationships they cultivate, and adverse situations they encounter.

The issue at hand is framed as:

Leader development is one aspect of a broader concept of leadership development.

Leader development expands a person’s capacity to be effective in leadership roles and processes.

Leadership roles and practices facilitate setting direction, creating alignment, and maintaining commitment in groups of people who share common work.

Some Assumptions

There are many different leadership roles and processes.

Most people participate in leadership in the course of their lives.

People take on leadership roles and participate in leadership processes to commit to larger social entities.

These roles may be formal positions infused with authority to take action and make decisions or informal roles with little official authority.

Leaders may actively participate in recognized processes for creating change or more subtle processes for shaping culture.

Shaping culture involves telling stories that define organizational values and celebrating accomplishments.

Rather than classifying people as leaders or non-leaders, all people can learn and grow to be more effective in their various leadership roles and processes.

The personal development process that improves leader effectiveness is what leader development is about.

Leader development is context-sensitive; there is no best way to lead or develop leaders.

Individuals can expand their leadership capacities, and these development efforts are worthwhile.

How does development happen?

From the CCL paper on Putting Experience at the Center of Talent Management, we learn that learning from experience is the #1 way development happens.

So, reading papers, articles, and posts does little for your development.

Maximizing on-the-job opportunities to prepare leaders, develop employees, and advance business goals and making on-the-job learning intentional accelerates leader development and furthers the goal of meeting business demands.

Meeting business demands is the imperative.

Effective leadership is the vehicle.

Accelerating leader development is the energy that drives the project forward.

This requires the talent management function to improve how to manage and develop talent.

If experience is the core driver of learning, gaining abilities and perspectives through daily work is the main platform to build. Bringing consistency and cohesion to this process is the first step to take.

As a heuristic, we are given 70-20-10 as the relative impact we can make on executive development through three types of experiences: challenging assignments, the 70; other people, the 20; coursework, the 10.

In a larger scheme, hardships and personal life experiences are other sources of growth and development.

These ideas come from CCL senior executive’s survey data on Key Developmental Experiences in Managerial Careers, where percentages along five types of experiences are revealed as follows:

%40+  Challenging or stretch assignments

%20+  Other people, e.g., bosses, mentors

%20+  Hardships, e.g., business mistakes, losing a job

%5       Coursework

%5       Personal life experiences

Experience-Driven Development (EDD)

Organizations that successfully implement EDD do five things:

identify stretch assignments,

staff for development, not just for performance,

create new experiences,

enhance learning from experience,

promote experience-driven development culture.

To attract and retain talent and accelerate leader development at every level, put experience-driven development at the center of your talent management and put Experience-Driven Talent Management into action.

Make sure …

working and learning are not considered separate but bound together;

working and learning are aligned with business strategy and shaped by talent strategy;

all talent processes enable and support learning from experience;

senior leaders support stretch and rotating assignments;

highly valued employees are routinely exported to other parts of the organization;

development opportunities are considered when making decisions about how to staff key projects;

performance management plans and practices are built on a foundation of individual learning and growth;

employee development plans include on-the-job experiences.

Challenging assignments put individuals in new and uncertain situations where they must take action, see outcomes, and refine their approach to be more successful. Over time, these cycles of action and adjustment build new skill sets and deeper expertise in facing unfamiliar or broader responsibilities, creating change, influencing across organizational boundaries, and working with diverse sets of people.

Over time, skills become competence; competence becomes expertise, and expertise becomes mastery.

Where Does Executive Coaching Fit in this View of Leadership?

What impact do we aim for through the executive coach and executive client relationship?

The focus of coaching work with senior-level executives is on the executive becoming more self-aware to carry out their leadership role more effectively.

Here again, the emphasis is on leadership effectiveness.

Seniority is about having significant responsibility for the organization’s success, current and future.

Becoming more self-aware is about manifesting emergent capabilities and cultivating potential capabilities.

In the framework of requisite organization, managing or leading, management or leadership, and manager or leader are terms used as a matter of convenience; we are concerned with managerial leadership as distinct from political, social, or religious leadership.

To me, the distinction in the business literature of management and leadership is bogus; it makes for nice literature but tells you little about how life is lived in the world.

Take, for example, the notion of working with the known versus focusing on what is unknown.

If you are working with the known, first of all, you are not working but operating a machine, and a simple machine for that, one might add; you are navigating in the world of Newton, and such a world does not exist anymore.

Take a washing machine; you push the button, and it does not start. Are you now in the known universe, or have you stepped into the unknown?

Take another example: focusing on task objectives versus focusing on people and relationships.

Now, where to start a rant on that?

I think that these distinctions arise out of the historical unfolding of our production economy and, as such, are not natural but historical categories; they have outlived their usefulness as a distinction and should both be considered to refer to the term managerial leadership in organizations, i.e., they are shorthand for a long term.

Returning to the issue at hand:

A stratified systems view of organizations makes the distinction between operational and strategic layers;

A structural view reminds us of the roles people take on, of parts and wholes, of the departmental and the functional, of authority and accountability;

A process-relational view brings into focus the activities of leadership, common purpose and common ground, critical inquiry and valued action, notions of flow and arrest of flow, negativity, waste, emergence, and patterns of interaction;

A transformational view on organizations and leadership brings all perspectives together in a dynamic, systemic whole where balance is not sought through limitation but through growth, enabling dialogue and development, celebrating endings and beginnings, welcoming challenge as opportunity, growing resources and tending to vulnerabilities, taking care while exercising power. 

Why Do Leaders Seek Executive Coaching?

You may have a notion of executive leadership and coaching; Let me just note that all such notions are advanced from a school of thought, an ideology, or a philosophy. We may have a transtheoretical change model, but we do not have a transtheoretical executive coaching model, so it falls upon you to choose what to engage depending on your need, your presenting problem, your preferences on what to include and not, etc.

I would draw attention to looking for an explicit model because whenever there is not an explicit one, there is an implicit one, which may or may not operate on espoused values. Even with an explicit model, it is a developmental struggle to be as one would like to believe one is.

You may be facing new challenges due to the expansion of your role, requiring the expansion of your identity and action repertoire:

A broader range of responsibility may bring with it a broader constituency, conflicting individual agendas, and a need to include more opposing forces and to use more differentiated influencing, leading you to search for an inner state supporting a more generative way to hold tension;

A broader time span of task completion may require broadening your time horizon, which is an outcome of cognitive development, requiring a shift of focus from superficial external goals that are achievable in the short term to an intentional opening of mind and heart in a targeted, personalized way (evidence-based in the sense of geared to your present ways of being).

Coaching for Leadership Transitions 

{Terblanche, Albertyn, & Van Coller-Peter, 2018. Developing leaders by supporting their transitions into senior positions. South African Journal of Business Management 49(1), a12.} 

Successful Transitions Require Resources 

For sustainable development and transformation to occur, strong leadership is required. When leaders are promoted into senior positions, they are vulnerable and face the possibility of failure, with negative implications on both micro (individual) and macro (organizational) levels. For leaders to transition successfully, organizations need to understand what challenges transitioning leaders face to provide adequate developmental support.

Transitioning leaders face challenges on a personal and systemic level, including uncertainty regarding expectations; pressure to show early results; lack of understanding of organizational politics if externally promoted; disruption in work-life balance; lack of specific skills demanded in the new role.

To face these challenges, transitioning leaders employ coping strategies, including actively understanding organizational functioning; determining where power bases lie; securing short-term successes; learning new skills and acquiring domain knowledge; building a strong network of trusted people; learning to manage higher levels of complexity.

Lack of organizational support and clarity on what is expected of newly promoted senior leaders is a source of discomfort and anxiety. Transitioning leaders could prepare themselves for the career move by educating themselves on the challenges they are likely to face, seeking clarity on what is expected of them in the new role, and actively building a support network. In addition, organizational stakeholders and sponsors could support transitioning leaders by providing relevant information they require to navigate the new role; explaining the cultural dynamics of the organization; exposing transitioning leaders to tailor-made leadership development programs; providing coaching and mentoring support; assisting the leader in setting realistic expectations of delivering early results.

Transformation at the macro level is accompanied by transformation at the micro level.

A key element of organizational sustainability is effective leadership at senior levels.

Leadership transition occurs when a leader takes on more and different responsibilities at a more senior level. This poses the leader with challenges to deal with higher levels of complexity and uncertainty, exhibit a higher level of emotional intelligence, work with longer time horizons, and step out of the comfort zone of a specialist to take on strategic challenges.

The Developing Leader 

Leadership transition is an aspect of leadership development. Transition models describe the transition in terms of challenges the incumbent faces, various support strategies, and theories and implications of success or failure.

Leader development concentrates on developing the individual leader. In contrast, leadership development involves multiple individuals, including the leader, her followers, and the social impact of this process. A career transition presents challenges to both leader and leadership development. It is captured in the notions of intra-personal and interpersonal development areas.

Intra-personal development includes self-awareness of the leader’s experience before the promotion; encouraging transitioning leaders to remain open to learning; being conscious of the skills required at the new career level; awareness of career and work orientations to direct self-development.

Interpersonal factors in leadership development focus on enhancing leadership capacity, relying on the content and structure of relationships involving leaders. Two relevant aspects are social mechanisms and authentic leadership. Positive learning environments form a social mechanism for enhancing leadership capacity and may assist in building strong relationships. Authentic leadership requires self-awareness, self-regulation, openness, and trust from both leader and followers.

The transitioning leader has to decide which aspects of her previous role to let go of, which to preserve, and which to build on. The newly promoted leader’s ability to learn is crucial to her ultimate success. The leader could merely adapt to the new situation and learn the new tricks of the trade by trying out several different approaches to solving a problem, evaluating the outcome, and trying out a different strategy if unsuccessful. This equates to the single-loop learning of Argyris (1991). The other type of change is defined as double-loop learning (Argyris, 1991) or transformative learning (Mezirow, 1994), where the leader examines the deeper governing variables that influence the very nature of her thinking and behavior, re-evaluating and reframing these deep-seated patterns and habits to achieve a more permanent shift in the way she interprets and interacts with the world.

Key aspects of fulfilling a new leadership role

Transitioning leaders will have initial impressions of what the role entails, accompanied by experiences of uncertainty and excitement. Recognition and achievement are the positive sides of promotion to a senior role. On the negative side is the anxiety from not knowing what is expected of them, feeling uncertain about their competence and knowledge, unsure whether they will measure up to their predecessors, and unsure about the support they will receive from the organization. 

After taking up the position, transitioning leaders face the actual challenges, which may include clarifying the new role, showing results, understanding the organization, finding work-life balance, and lacking skills.

Finally, transitioning leaders employ certain strategies to overcome the challenges involving understanding the environment, “nailing your flag to the pole,” learning, building a network, and managing the complexity.

Facing challenges

Organizations must understand the challenges that the new leaders have to face and the level of support they require to master the next level. Lack of support may result in emotional suffering. There may be an expectation that the new leader will define her agenda and sort it out by herself, leaving her to onboard herself.

The struggle of newly appointed leaders to understand what is expected of them could be attributed to the higher complexity associated with senior roles and the organization’s expectation of the incumbents to find their way.

This is highly anxiety-provoking when combined with not having access to the necessary resources, focusing on the wrong goals, and the pressure to show early results.

Identifying where to secure early wins is one of the most important activities of a newly promoted senior leader. However, pressure to show early results should be put in perspective by fully understanding the ecosystem so as not to move too quickly by first understanding the systemic context of the role, the strategic intent of the organization, the culture, politics, and how decisions are made and where the power lies.

Successful senior managers spend more time learning about the organizational culture and what the new role entails within the systemic context and culture.

It is argued that transitioning within an organization brings the advantage of prior knowledge of organizational culture and politics and the established relationships and networks to rely on. However, the challenge is to view the relationships from the new role’s perspective and redefine relationships where necessary. Newly promoted leaders often struggle with their peers now reporting to them.

External promotions challenge building a new network, getting to grips with the organizational culture, and influencing people.

Skill gaps may become apparent, and relying too heavily on skills and strategies of past successes may become a weakness. Developing advanced interpersonal and social skills is crucial to succeeding at a senior level. The shift from being part of a team to leading the team and the interpersonal dynamics accompanying such a change are the most challenging aspects of a promotion.

Moving from operational to strategic thinking is the big challenge that a transitioning senior leader will need to grow into.

Overcoming challenges

One of the most critical aspects of senior leadership success is organization-wide alignment. Transitioning executives must understand the situation and adapt to that reality, making sense of the environment and how the organization functions.

There will be a window of opportunity to show results, but it is important to understand the system before acting. A balance between speed and patience is required. It can take transitioning executives longer than three months to determine the required solutions, let alone achieve significant positive change and tangible results. Popular views recommending early wins in the first 90 or 100 days are nicely rounded numbers without any empirical grounding. 

Learning and adapting are the most important actions for career success. Senior leaders must have sufficient domain knowledge. Newly promoted senior managers must be honest about their lack of domain knowledge and surround themselves with trusted advisors transparently.

Executives with the most successful transitions spend more time than others preparing for their roles, and they are more likely to report proficiency in the key skills for their jobs.

Building a strong network of the right people is crucial in navigating the new environment that comes with the promotion. However, selecting the wrong mentors and support networks is always a danger.

Regular communication and obtaining the team’s buy-in will assist in building a strong team who will trust the leader. Clarifying the team’s role within the larger organizational context is one of the primary tasks of a newly promoted senior leader.

The levels of complexity that leaders have to deal with increase substantially in a senior role, and senior leaders’ ability to cope at higher levels is linked to their ability to perceive and manage complexity.

Coaching for Leader Integrity

{Van der Walt & Van Coller-Peter, 2020. Coaching for development of leader’s awareness of integrity: An evidence-based approach. South African Journal of Business Management, (51)1, a1943.}

As a character dimension, leader integrity is imperative for effective leadership and sustainable performance. The following elements of a strengths-based approach support leader development:

Creating a safe space to explore the importance of awareness of integrity.

Recognizing existing resources to build on future positive outcomes.

Development in leader awareness could result in positive outcomes:

Increased ability to act with consistency.

Willingness to experiment with new behaviors.

Self-checking to support immediate change.


Adjunctive virtues are neither good nor bad in a moral context but are necessary for desirable behavior. Integrity should be considered an adjunctive virtue, as are courage and steadfastness.

Substantive virtues are themselves morally good and include honesty and fairness.

To demonstrate honesty and fairness is to act morally principled, whereas acting with integrity is associated with alignment between words and deeds.

Integrity as an adjunctive virtue is an issue of personal identity and not necessarily a moral virtue.

Leader integrity can be defined as acting in accordance with stated values, following through on promises, and using ethical considerations to guide decisions and actions. Integrity is at the crossing between honesty and authenticity. The operationalized version would include behaving consistently with ethical standards, even in difficult situations.

Leader awareness

Leader development involves interventions to develop the leader’s character, skills, and competencies. Leadership is contextual. What works to move one leader to action in a specific context might not move another leader to action in a different context. Specific to integrity as a character dimension, business coaching can positively influence leaders’ character development.

Increasing awareness of the importance of certain behaviors through coaching can lead to immediate change. In addition, reflection increases awareness of leaders’ values, beliefs, feelings, and actions in the organizational context.

Leaders who have received coaching are more likely to model and provide individualized consideration to their supporters. This is achieved through developing the leaders’ ability to build trust, act with principle and integrity, and inspire and develop others.

Coaching with a solution-focused cognitive-behavioral model has potential positive leader outcomes facilitated as a result of increased awareness of the importance of integrity:

Consistency in words and action is evident in leaders with integrity.

Leaders with high integrity model the behaviors they want to endorse in the organization.

Leaders with integrity look beyond self-interest toward the attainment of team goals.

Integrity is associated with leadership excellence.

A leader with character is considered a caring leader, resulting in followers being open to leader influence attempts.

Strong character drives positive leader outcomes.

The character of leaders is foundational to the quality of decision-making.

Solution-focused coaching (SFC) focuses on constructing a pathway to goal attainment by utilizing existing strengths and working from the present. It is a first-person approach, with the coach focusing on the personal experience and imagination of the client and not seeking to understand. It is about staying on the surface with the client and viewing each case as unique. The key principles include focusing on solutions by using reframing to change the client’s perception; focusing on what is working and encouraging the client to do more of the same and, finding out what is not working and doing something different; holding the client as equal to the partnership, and viewing positive change on the part of the client as inevitable. Other principles are a future rather than a past or present orientation, disengaging from problems and actively constructing solutions, articulating preferred outcomes, developing action steps towards goal attainment, and acknowledging the client’s strengths.

A positive change is brought about when the client uses her resilience, strengths, and resources to identify ways to achieve goals. In addition, a solution-focused approach contributes to cognitive and behavioral changes, supporting goal attainment.

Cognitive-behavioral coaching (CBC) aims to provide insight regarding unhelpful cognitions and supports more effective thinking, resulting in new behaviors. CBC recognizes the interaction between one’s behavior, thoughts, feelings, and environment and that goal attainment is best facilitated by understanding the relationship between these four domains. Initial coaching conversations focus on identifying personally meaningful goals to increase goal commitment and precede the solution-focused aspect of coaching. Such intense cognitive processing facilitates thinking and supports the formulation of options and action plans.

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a psychological theory of human behavior and motivation relevant to solution-focused coaching. Both have an autonomy-supportive facilitation approach. SFC supports the perception of clients’ autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which are keys to supporting self-determination.

In line with positive psychology, a solution-focused approach is distinctively placed to support the building of positive emotions and extended thought-action ranges linking SFC to Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory. Both positive psychology and solution-focused coaching are ultimately concerned with helping clients to flourish and have a better future.

The psychodynamic approach to coaching holds that unconscious motives rooted in past experiences affect current behaviors and feelings.

The Gestalt approach is focused on clients’ in-the-moment awareness concerning experiences, the external world, and blocks to awareness.

Narrative coaching involves forming new connections between the client’s stories, identities, and behaviors.

Person-centered coaching is based on the assumption that clients will develop constructively given the appropriate conditions.

The neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) approach aims to identify how clients construct their realities to control their inner experiences in a specific context.

Coaching provides a safe space to explore and think about alternative solutions to address issues, likely resulting in better decision-making. The likelihood of testing new behaviors and actions increases when the decision rests with the leader. Coaching develops resilience in leaders to persevere regardless of context.

A focus on positive outcomes is an element in support of the development of awareness. Cognitive processing, such as identifying and activating resources and strengths, motivates learning new behaviors. Coaching is energizing and supports the willingness to experiment with change by better understanding existing strengths and developing strengths more fully.

Doing consistently the right thing is a positive leader outcome due to coaching. Integrity is not about self only but also about the team and the positive impact on overall effectiveness and performance. Social cognitive theory asserts that people learn through observation, and leaders should model the behaviors they want to endorse in their teams. To support integrity, leaders must practice consistency in difficult times, congruence in words and actions, and truthfulness. Acting with consistency drives team effectiveness and clarifies expectations. It is consistency that allows leadership by example.

Awareness of the importance of integrity provides the momentum to act, but this is different from changing behavior. The intent to change has to be followed through. Behavior change starts with a change in thinking and a readiness to experiment. For example, reflecting on values, beliefs, and feelings could change behavior in the organizational context. Cognitive processing, such as facilitated reflections, helps develop self-insight.

Experiential learning theory describes how experience is transformed into learning through a knowledge acquisition cycle involving experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting. Coaching contributes to an increase in reflection. Reflection is especially important after coaching to integrate new behavior.

Does leadership matter? 

Leader development is an aspect of adult development. 

Leaders and Leadership are topics that get much attention in our daily media coverage of political and business issues. Sometimes, the words leader or leadership are pronounced or implied by the storyteller. 

People take on leadership roles and participate in leadership processes in their civic life, sometimes intentionally and sometimes just as a matter of course, to fulfill their rights and responsibilities, to carry out their commitments to larger social entities, or because their actions flow naturally from their social identity or personal identity. 

In any case, there is a demand in the moment, a need, something that requires human action as part of an unfolding situation in a particular context, and there is the aspect of leadership or human agency potentially able to shape, influence, or transform the situation with intentionality and purpose. This is when leadership capacities matter, and the leader’s development directly impacts the effectiveness of processes and the achievement of desirable outcomes. This is the time when leadership matters. 

Do we need leaders to have leadership?

Leader development is essential to and for leadership development.

Leadership can be seen as the social capital embedded in culture, relationships, and the values, hopes, dreams, and commitments of and to purpose.

If no individual in the group is identifying themself as a leader, can we still have leadership? This question is akin to asking, does the culture generate Direction, Alignment, and Commitment (DAC)?

Accelerating leader development and enhancing leader effectiveness 

Leader effectiveness is central to performance results.

Leader effectiveness is related to the adult developmental level of the leader, their competence, and temperament.

Leader development can influence leader effectiveness.

Organizations can accelerate leader development.

The need for leadership at all levels of organizations is a given.

Executives would appreciate a framework of theorizing and practicing validated guidelines for implementing a comprehensive leader development program.

The literature on effective leadership and exceptional business performance converges on the idea that leaders make a difference, leadership has an impact on outcomes, and individuals and organizations can work on building systems to develop and master (ingredients of) leadership capabilities (be it behaviors, skills, or characteristics).

The mastery of leader capabilities is assumed to be a process that one can accelerate through intentional practice, directed attention, and structured support in the form of job assignments, teaching, coaching, and mentoring.

What is less obvious is what system to choose, where to start, and what way to go.

A unified, universal, integrated, integral, and integrative theory, model, approach, or framework broadly researched, validated, criticized, and accepted would make our endeavor much more fulfilling and energize our readiness to step on the path with hope.

What results can one expect from working with an executive coach?

What does it cost, what does one get, what does one need to do, and what is the coach going to do?

The move from Stratum II to Stratum III

Work in organizations can be viewed as a layered hierarchy of task complexity which can be operationalized as: standardize, systematize, and integrate.

What does life look like at stratum III?

What does it take to move from stratum II to stratum III?

What experience and skill development is appropriate to prepare for such a move?

What is different at stratum III from stratum II or stratum IV?

What does one need to gain or acquire, and what to let go of or shed?