Grace & Gigabytes Blog

Perspectives on leadership, learning, and technology for a time of rapid change

Updated: Dec 6, 2019

Welcome to the first-ever blog series on the Motivational Clichés Leadership Blog!

In this series, we'll explore how to build leadership development experiences that won't bore your learners to tears! In each posts, we'll ask why leadership and management courses are often viewed by participants as a waste of time - and how you, the talent development professional, can do something about it!

It's no secret that leaders don't love leader training, which is too bad, given how much time and money their employers invest in it.

At best, people leaders tend to view their training experiences as semi-optional diversions from their actual responsibilities. At worst, managers view leadership training as an obtrusive hindrance to their ability to lead effectively. Regardless of how leadership training is received, it's likely that nearly all of the participants will forget everything they learned within two to three weeks, applying little to none of what they were taught.

This is a problem that matters to me on a personal level. As a leadership developer, I build these types of courses for a living. At a practical level, I'm a busy guy and I don't want to waste my time with inapplicable training. At a deeper level, I want to avoid the existential dread that ineffective training can trigger in instructional design types.

It's a picture of one door closing while another door opens. It's a metaphor. That actually happened.

Fortunately, I have the benefit of working with a vocal team and an engaged group of people leaders, willing to provide radically candid feedback on what they like, dislike, and find applicable about their experiences. While I don't claim to have some monopoly on timeless principles for leadership development, I might humbly suggest that I have identified several common mistakes that many leadership trainers continue to make!

As I continue to build and deliver leadership courses, I have identified three common problems with leadership training that leave learners bored, disengaged, and even resentful. They are:

  1. Teaching too many things

  2. Introducing too many models

  3. Pushing a single leadership style or philosophy

Fortunately, each of these problems has a solution, with which you can boredom-proof your leadership training! The solutions are:

  1. Don't teach anything.

  2. Don't use models or frameworks.

  3. Don't promote leadership styles.

But what, you may ask, am I supposed to do if not these three things?

In the three upcoming blog posts, we'll dive into each of these problems, their corresponding solutions, and how you, the leadership developer, can take action. Whether you are an instructional designer, a trainer, a people leader, an HR business partner, or someone who just wants their teams to lead more effectively, these posts will inspire you to start dialogues that lead to concrete leadership development outcomes.

In this digital age, there is a better way to build leadership in our organizations. This blog series is about acknowledging that the common way of doing leadership training simply doesn't work - but there is, in fact, a way forward.

The motivational cliché mug from Pine Lake Camp, photo credit: Ben, Robyn, and Baby Cedar Koehler

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Updated: Sep 25, 2019

I recognize that beginning a blog about organizational leadership with a high school football story may seem unconventional, but stick with me. 

When I was 16 years old, I played on my school’s varsity football team. With my awkward six-foot-plus frame and size fifteen sneakers, it was clear that I couldn’t pass as a “skill” position player, so the coaches assigned me to the offensive line.

A postgame photo from a rare playing days victory

My position coach, a grizzled recent retiree from the school faculty, had a strong football pedigree and decades of experience. I was eager to work with him. The only problem, as I soon discovered— he was rather critical of my play. During my years of being yelled at for missing blocking assignments and losing pass-blocking drills, I would often leave practice feeling deflated, not knowing how to improve, but keenly aware my coach thought I was doing something wrong. My mindset was closed, my opportunities for growth limited.

While I have always had a good relationship with that particular coach, and still consider him to be a profoundly influential figure in my life, the experience of being continuously yelled at has certainly left its mark.

Recently, my love of the game led me back to the gridiron, this time as a volunteer high school coach. In past seasons, I have coached offensive and defensive linemen at the middle school and high school level. I sometimes joke with my high school friends that whenever I am uncertain as to what to do next, I think about how my red-faced, foot-stomping high school position coach would handle the situation, and I promptly do the opposite. 

Several years ago, I was coaching a player who had considerable physical talent. He was a natural football player who dominated the competition, but his lousy attitude was, at times, a distraction. At first, my inclination was to yell at and reprimand this player, particularly when his negative presence prevented the team from completing a drill or learning a necessary play. But having studied the value of workplace coaching and appreciative inquiry, I decided to try another tact.

I committed to repeatedly asking this player what kind of attitude his teammates would want to see from an elite-level talent like his.

"What would it look like," I would inquire "for a player of your caliber to have an attitude that matched his talent level?" "How much better would this team be," I would ask, "if your presence and demeanor were as consistent as your gameplay?"

Anytime his temper would flare or his attitude would sour, I would check my inclination to yell and reprimand, and would instead return to the core questions of appreciative inquiry.

Ever so slowly, his attitude improved. Incidents would flare up on occasion, but with decreasing frequency. While the player didn't always eagerly engage in this type of questioning, he clearly appreciated the constant reminder that he was valued. He appreciated a coach reminding him that he had potential to be even greater, and that he was in control of his own situation.

Too many workplace leaders still operate by first identifying what their teams are doing wrong - without empowering their teams to ask the questions of what might be instead. As a consequence, they view their people not as invaluable contributors to shared success, but as individual problems to be solved.

The simple yet difficult shift from asking "what went wrong" to "what could be" may be the shift your team needs - for morale, for performance, and for sustained success. I truly believe that coaching with appreciative inquiry, or questions that lead to the articulation of an ideal future state, can be a transformational tactic wherever it is practiced.

Image of a football stadium at night
Friday night lights: the great laboratory of leadership

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