Winners Are Born In Difficult Times

Creating winning conditions for leadership development

The following is a guest post by Therese S. Kinal.

At best, leadership development is a fun day out, at worst it is a gut wrenching, annoying exercise that leaves you cringing as someone teaches you to suck eggs. In neither case does it make you into a leader. Harsh? Perhaps, but that’s how most managers and executives I work with see it…. and in the majority of cases, I agree.

In today’s environment, employees have to deal with complexity and ambiguity at a much higher rate than before. Functions and clear roles and responsibilities have been replaced with multiple bosses, cross-functional teams, working with partners all over the world and a general sense of never quite standing still. In this brave new world, the only constant is change. And it is managers’ ability to innovate, collaborate and adapt to a constantly changing environment that are the leadership skills we most need to develop.

Despite the billions invested in leadership development every year, the vast majority of programs fail to deliver their intended results. In the US alone, US$ 156 billion is invested in learning and development every year, or US$ 1,182 per employee (1). And even though classroom training (live and virtual) is perceived to be the least effective(2), over 50% of organizations report using it(3).

In this tough economic climate and rapidly changing business environment, it’s not enough to advocate leadership development on the back of competency models. HR professionals these days need to show how they deliver measurable business results and develop the leaders of tomorrow.

We recently did an interesting exercise in our own team. In preparation for a workshop, we reflected on our most defining experiences as individuals, i.e. the experiences that have shaped our lives and made us into who we really are. As you might imagine, the answers were centered on overcoming adversity, dealing with new and tough challenges and working together with a great team.

Now, let’s compare for a moment this to how most of us approach leadership development. Last year I spent some time speaking with a senior HR director in a large, global FMCG company that illustrates the problem well. Like most large organizations, one of their biggest challenges was creating and innovative and entrepreneurial culture. They had identified several competencies that were needed and then hired trainers to teach their managers about innovation, collaboration and working with people across functions, geographies and cultures. Unsurprisingly, not much changed.

While training can be worthwhile, it doesn’t change how people think and act, nor does it develop leaders. Ralph Kruegar, Edmonton Oilers said: “Winners are born in difficult times”. I couldn’t agree more and research supports this(4). Behavioral change occurs by combining cognitive, behavioral and emotive components. To develop, an individual must go through an explorative journey, where they learn through real life action, develop ownership and internalize new knowledge and behaviors.

So, how do we do this in practice? Well, we have found that the most effective way to develop leaders is not through any program at all, but rather by infusing leadership development into real, live action in the workplace. Here’s our approach:

1. Real, Pressing & Complex Problem
Change happens when we go through a transformational process that requires personal engagement, group interdependency, collaboration and intense learning. This can only be achieved in the context of solving a real, pressing and complex business problem in real time.

2. Diverse Team that Challenges You
Diversity is no longer about simply sitting on cross-functional teams. Change requires diversity of thought. When we work with people who think differently to us, it challenges our preconceived assumptions and opens our mind up to seeing things we don’t in a mono-cultural environment.

3. Learning through Action
For learning to take place, we must go through an explorative journey, where we learn through real life action, make personal adjustments to the learned material, develop ownership and internalize new knowledge and behaviors.

4. 1+1=3  Co-creation
It’s not enough to simply sit on a team made up of people different to us. Only when we think and create together, do we take a leap. Co-creation requires us to have an open mind, receive other’s thoughts and input and build on and challenge their ideas.

5. Going Through a Battle
As the team tackles the complex and pressing problem through exploration and action, they will go through conflict and turbulence. This is a crucial part of the change process and needs to be managed by an experienced coach.

6. The Coach
Just like in professional sports, leadership development requires a superb coach. The coach should be hand picked and trained to empower teams to work through issues and create solutions. They should work side-by-side with the team, managing the change journey, challenging thinking, providing external perspective and ensuring the team creates breakthrough solutions and innovations that they genuinely believe in.

Many organizations claim to be using some of the theories above, such as Action Learning, but are actually not. To keep it simple, they have adapted the experiential learning process to be a test on an actual problem solving exercise, rather than giving the participants mandate to actually solve a problem or innovate in real time. This desire to systematize and standardize what is an organic and exploratory process – how we develop into leaders – is at the crux of why leadership development so often does not work.

My advice to you: Think about how you yourself have developed, dare to think outside the box and question how it’s always been done:

  • Why does leadership development need to be done the way traditional HR and consultancies say it does?
  • What can you do differently tomorrow to stretch and develop the people in your team?
  • When was the last time you ‘pushed’ them to the limits and they loved you for it?

…and most importantly: never stop questioning what you’re doing – there’s always room for improvement.

Therese S. Kinal is the CEO and co-founder of Unleash, a disruptive innovator in the management education and consulting industry. She co-authored the white paper Unleashing: The Future of Work and has written for the Harvard Business Review and the Huffington Post. Therese was also listed in this year’s Management Today “35 Women Under 35″ 2013 Awards. You can read her blog on her website and follow her on Twitter.

(1) American Center for Training & Development 2012 State of the Industry Report, 2012. Available online at:

(2) CIPD, (2012 and 2008). Learning and Talent Development Report, 2012, and Who Learns at Work, 2008. Available online at:

(3) US Training Industry Report, 2011. Available online at:

(4) Foy, 1972, Fitts & Posner, 1967, Kolb, 1984, Brown, 2009.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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