“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

This quote is one of my favourites because of its power and relevance in so many areas of life. No where is it more relevant than in the context of leadership development.

Where should an organisation start in order to develop its leaders?

According to Harvard Professor Barbara Kellerman, there are now some 1,500 definitions and around 40 theories of leadership! This doesn’t help. Neither does the fact that the debate, and many training programmes, regularly become obsessed with conceptual arguments about what the word ‘leadership’ means, rather than working out what matters most. There is still a tendency to focus on outdated and largely useless questions about whether leaders or ‘born’ or ‘made’, or concepts such as how ‘leadership is doing the right things’, whilst ‘management is doing things right’, or the need for strategic vision.

It’s not that these things aren’t important, but there is much more to it. At this level, we can’t explain how we instinctively know a great leader when we meet or work with one, because such debate is conceptual. It is a bit like the difference between observing that a car needs a reliable engine, when the real question is, what are the factors necessary to produce reliability?

With great leaders, what is interesting is that everyone uses similar adjectives to describe them. I’ve done an exercise with thousands of people, where I ask them to come up with a description of the best leaders they know, and the results are always the same. In every case, almost all of these adjectives refer to aspects of mindset, not skillsets. What’s more, this exercise highlights that the attributes that are most valued are those that foster an environment within which people feel good. It is never about title, or status, and very rarely even about what a leader may have done—true leaders move us emotionally, ignite our passion, and inspire us to do our best, and we follow them for it. They help us to thrive.

Leadership of this nature is true “emotional intelligence” in action. So, the question is, how can we build the engine a leader needs?


A Different Form of Development

A huge part of our challenge as we seek to develop any capability that is based on mindset is that we are used to thinking about our personal growth in terms of skills. But, because of its reliance on emotional intelligence (EI), leadership cannot be developed through traditional forms of training which work well for the development of skills and knowledge. Neither can another vital aspect of leadership: effective decision making in the face of complexity and accelerating disruption.

The problem is that we are too comfortable and familiar with analysis, logic and rationalisation as the basis for personal development. We read a book or grasp a concept, and then seek to build on that understanding in the way that we would for any skill. But engaging people, or making great decisions in the face of volatility and uncertainty, have much more to do with having the right mindset than any skillset—and to develop aspects of mindset we need, quite literally, to focus on a different part of the brain to that which copes with skill development.


Turning Learning Inside Out

The capabilities needed by leaders today do not arise in the part of the brain which takes care of analytical and technical ability – called the neocortex – the one that most training programmes focus on. EI arises in the emotional brain – the limbic system – which looks after our feelings, impulses and desires, and this part learns in a totally different way.

Ronald Heifetz, co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University, describes the two forms of personal development:

  • ‘Technical’ changes, which are enabled by the development of skillsets. They have a cognitive basis, founded in the neocortex, and whilst they can be vitally important and the changes involved may not necessarily be easy, the skillsets required are well known and understood. Here, the traditional, outside in, approach to learning is effective. It has an external world orientation, founded on a basic (albeit largely unconscious) assumption that we can prepare for life by learning about things.
  • ‘Adaptive’ changes, where there is a need to transform at a deeper level than purely to develop new skills. These changes must be addressed from the inside out, through a process of realisation and self-discovery rather than instruction, and involve the creation of new connections in the emotional and instinctive parts of our brain. Such learning impacts the way we perceive the world, our level of self-awareness, and our inner relationship with others and to life in general. It is not so much about what we know, but how we know, and for change to occur it must resonate with an inner validity that cannot be achieved when someone else tells us. This is about the transformation of mindset.

Wherever a technical approach is taken to address an adaptive challenge, focusing on the neocortex rather than the limbic system—and leadership development definitely fits into the adaptive category—it is almost guaranteed to fail. In fact, doing that can be worse than doing nothing. Research by Daniel Goleman and the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations has found that when a rational approach to emotional development is adopted, it can even have an adverse impact on people’s job performance.

As such, internationally recognised expert on EI, Daniel Goleman, is not wrong in his assertion that, “far too many programs that intend to develop leadership skills – including EI – are a waste of time and money”, when they focus on outside in training. But flip it to inside out, mindset training, and the results can be transformational.

Clearly then, the type of learning required for leadership development which has EI at its centre, must create change at the level of the limbic system. This part of the brain learns best through motivation, extended practice, and feedback, and it takes place most effectively when we focus on developing what are called meta-skills. 


Focusing on Meta-Skills

So called, “meta-skills” aren’t really skills in the normal sense of the word. They are mental competencies—higher order thinking capabilities which play an important role in the delivery of many other skills. For example, in competition the technical skill of hitting a tennis forehand is of little value without the meta-skill of being able to stay calm under pressure. But that same capability to stay calm under pressure will benefit many other areas of life. Meta-skills can also be used in a wide variety of circumstances, including some we have never directly experienced before.

All such meta-skills are inner capabilities of mindset, which is why taking an inside out approach to this kind of leadership development is so important. Effectively, as Emerson articulated so well, it is about focusing on a set of core principles. By adopting this kind of principle-based leadership development, improvements can be achieved across a wide range of superficially unrelated capabilities, such as: communication skills, the ability to develop more robust, collaborative and empathetic relationships, teamwork, resilience under stress, creativity and vision, and responsiveness to change.

The good news is that all of the necessary emotional competencies for effective leadership can be learnt, and in many cases they are complementary and mutually supporting. As one competency is improved, others automatically rise with it. We must simply make sure that we focus in an effective way on the limbic brain.

It’s about Mindset. Not Skills!