Systemic Leadership – Part 4

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …

4.     Experiences that Develop Leadership Capabilities


In Parts 1 to 3 we explored the foundations of systemic thinking and its relationship to the reductionist and connectivist paradigms.  We considered new ways or working within organizations and new ways of leading in a time of change.  We will now turn our attention to how we can develop ourselves, and others who lead or aspire to lead, in ways that are consistent with the challenges of the 21st Century and underlying assumptions of systemic leadership.

A fundamental theme of this penultimate Post on Systemic Leadership is that whatever approaches are taken to leadership development, they will be more effective if they incorporate the three key components of assessment, challenge and support.  Drawing on the work of The Centre for Creative Leadership (McCauley, C.D., Moxley, R.S., Van Velsor, E. (Eds), (1998), Handbook of Leadership Development, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco), the following five approaches will be used to illustrate this theme:

  • 360-Degree Feedback;
  • Feedback-Intensive Programmes;
  • Skill-Based Training;
  • Job Assignments;
  • Developmental Relationships;

4.1    360-Degree Feedback

360-degree feedback is a method of systematically collecting opinions about a person’s performance from a wide range of co-workers.  The benefit of collecting data of this kind is that the person gets to see a panorama of perceptions and is able to see these in the light of their own perceptions.  When embedded in a larger leadership development process, the impact of formal 360-degree feedback can be highly significant.  Below is a typical example of part of a 360-degree feedback form.

MANAGING INFORMATION Evidenced strength Development need
1 Seeks information energetically.
2 Creates order out of large quantities of information.
3 Keen observer of people, events and things.
4 Gets to the heart of the problem
5 Spots trends early
6 Adept at disseminating information to others.
7 Crisp, clear and articulate.
8 Good public speaker, good at performing.
9 Makes points effectively to a resistant audience.
10 Strong communicator on paper.
11 Action oriented, presses for immediate results.
12 Decisive, doesn’t procrastinate.
13 Trouble-shooter, enjoys solving problems.
14 Implements decisions, follows through.
15 Weighs consequences of complicated actions.

In the life of a busy organization, people often find themselves feedback-starved as they get caught up in day-to-day pressures and fail to pick up the cues from others.  Furthermore, giving and receiving feedback are threatening activities for many people, and they may not feel that either is worth the risk.  Formal 360-degree feedback processes help to address these issues, although the process may take significant effort in terms of understanding and interpretation the results.  This usually requires the services of an expert.

The benefits of multiple views are:

  • They reflect a more comprehensive representation of a person’s reality;
  • They reduce the potential for bias;
  • They reflect the new reality of networked systems;
  • They include feedback that would normally be untapped (customers, suppliers, clients).

The assessment component of 360-degree feedback is self evident.  It can be use to help people answer the question “How am I doing?” by providing the perspective of multiple raters.

The challenge component of 360-degree feedback is in facing what people who have multiple perspectives really think of you, and comparing this with your self-concept.  This kind of introspection can seriously challenge our comfort zone.  But perhaps the greatest challenge of all is answering the question “Now that I have the data, what do I do with it?”  In this sense, it serves as a valuable ‘unfreezing’ process.

The support component of 360-degree feedback involves building in various features to the feedback process.  These include:

  • Maintaining the confidential nature of the feedback data;
  • Using a trained feedback facilitator for clarification about the data;
  • Gaining senior level support for the participant’s development plan;
  • Making clear the goals for the process from the outset;
  • Offering organizational support for the kinds of assignments that are known to contribute to the effective development of leaders;
  • Enabling systems for on-going feedback;
  • Following-up conscientiously on the development plan.

4.2    Feedback Intensive Programmes (FIP)

Typically, a feedback intensive programme is a room based exercise that takes place away from work.  It is particularly relevant as a leadership development tool under the following circumstances:

  • A time of career transition, either to a new organization or to new responsibilities in the present job;
  • In developing the careers of people identified as having high-potential;
  • When someone shows signs of potential derailment, being passed over for promotion or faltering in performance in normally strong areas.

The defining features of a FIP include:

  • A classroom based educational experience;
  • Typically takes place away from work;
  • Feedback is intensive and comprehensive, comes from multiple perspectives and uses various instruments and experiences;
  • Feedback is constant throughout the process;
  • The programme provides concepts and models for reflecting on various aspects of leadership.

Programmes have three phases.

(a)       Pre-programme Activities

These may involve:

  • Responding to open-ended, essay type questions;
  • Interviewing the participant’s boss about how s/he views effective leadership in their organization;
  • Completing a number of personality inventories, attitude surveys, questionnaires about their current leadership challenges, and self-rating of their skills and abilities;
  • Rating forms completed by their bosses, peers and staff (360-degree processes).

Programme staff use the data as raw material for feedback reports that are delivered at appropriate times during the residential component of the programme.

(b)       The Residential Component

Generally, this is a five-day event containing structured experiences such as leaderless group discussions, simulations and targeted exercises.

When placed early in a programme, leaderless group discussion can help group members get to know each other and provide valuable corroborative data to compare to the feedback they receive later in the programme.

Simulations in some way replicate aspects of people’s real-life jobs.  They can be as small as an in-tray exercise taking an hour to complete or as large as a full-scale simulation of two organizations working together that takes a day to complete.  Watching how people perform in simulations can provide data on how effectively someone finds and assimilates information, communicates it to others, and works with others to solve problems.

Targeted exercises are short, experiential exercises done in small groups that provide assessment data and serve to reinforce a point made in the classroom or a theme that is central to the programme.  Unlike simulations, targeted exercises such as do not attempt to replicate the actual work environment.

In many exercises, people are encouraged to choose a behaviour they are considering changing and experiment with it in the safe environment of the classroom with a group of trusted peers.

(c)       Post-programme Activities

It is important to provide participants with structured support as they continue to reflect on what they have learned about themselves and pursue goals and action plans.  This may come from a wide variety of coaching or peer relationship options, often combined with the keeping of a journal.

The assessment component of feedback intensive programmes is present throughout the process, which immerses participants in rich data about themselves and their interactions with others.

The challenge component of feedback intensive programmes comes from the amount and intensity of the feedback, the discomfort of being rated while engaging in new and demanding tasks, and encounters with different ideas and perspectives.

The support component of feedback intensive programmes is provided by both the programme staff and the other participants.  The climate in the training room is relationship-based and over the course of the programme the group becomes a community of learners who grow to trust each other.

4.3    Skill-Based Training

The basic assumption of skill-based training as applied to leadership is that through a series of step-by-step instructions and demonstrations, managers can learn the skills and techniques of leaders.  This approach encompasses two types of learning – knowledge and skills, i.e. the cognitive and the action domains of learning.

The basis of modern skills-based training programmes is the research that has been carried out over the last decade or so, which has identified a range of specific competencies that are linked to effective leadership, e.g. visioning, self-awareness, systemic thinking, motivating others and self-confidence.  Some of these lend themselves to the feedback-intensive approach, others lend themselves to skill-based training approaches whilst others benefit from a combined approach.

A criticism often levelled at skills-based training when used in the context of leadership development is that leadership competencies are too broad-based to be approached in this way.  However, broad competencies are made up of a range of more focused skills, and it is these skills that are amenable to development through skill-based approaches.

The variety of training methods available

With regard to the approaches typically applied to skill-based training, these can be view on a continuum from low to high interactivity, with each suited to its own category of skills.

Interactivity       Methodology           Examples of Skills Learned

Low Lecture Conceptual information such as theories, models, principles and techniques.
Low/medium Case Study Complex skills such as the ability to see alternative solutions, question assumptions, think analytically, detect and solve problems.
Medium Role-play Interpersonal skills such as conflict management, negotiation, influencing, team building, active listening, giving and receiving feedback, and communication.
High/medium Behavioural role-modelling Same as role play.
High Simulations Problem solving, interpersonal skills and analytical thinking.

The assessment component of skill-based training is through pre- and post-training measures of skills in the specific content area.  Added to this, on-going feedback improves the effectiveness of skill-based training

The challenge component comes from being taken out of one’s comfort zone and into new waters.  Moreover, role-plays, behaviour modelling and simulations are relatively safe ways to put individuals into situations where they can try out skills, with relatively little consequence from their mistakes.

The support component is around providing the opportunity for learners to apply newly acquired skills within their job context, i.e. supporting the transfer of learning.  Organizations, and line managers, vary greatly in their willingness and ability to allow appropriate transfer of learning.  Barriers include competing priorities, fear of errors and cognitive dissonance.

As there is some overlap, and often confusion, between feedback-intensive programmes and skill-based training, it is worth considering the similarities and differences in a structured format.

Skill-based Training                             Feedback-intensive Programmes

Purpose To improve performance in specified skill areas. To gain in-depth understanding of strengths and weaknesses and develop increased self-awareness.
Focus Narrow focus on only specified skill areas. Wide focus on a broad range of potential strengths and weaknesses.
Use of feedback Feedback is used as a tool for assessing pre- and post-training skill levels and for increasing skill level during training. Feedback is used to understand how one is viewed from multiple perspectives and how one’s behaviour has an impact on others.
Use of practice An ample opportunity to practice new skills through experiential activities is essential to good skill-based training design.  Practice is necessary to improve skill levels. Little, if any, practice of new skills.  Experiential activities are used to generate data about oneself, one’s behaviours, and how these behaviours are viewed by others.
Content Design includes prescriptive information, specific models, checklists and tactics for use. Design includes information that helps participants organize their experiences (rather than prescriptive information).  Typically includes models and concepts.

Skill-based & Feedback-Intensive Training Compared and Contrasted

4.4    Job Assignments

Job assignments are one of the oldest and most effective forms of leadership development as they provide the opportunity to learn by doing.  What makes a job assignment developmental is an appropriate degree of stretch or challenge.  Below are some examples of the types of challenge that can be provided by a range of assignments.

Type of challenge                                      Appropriate assignments

Managing personal transitions Being the inexperienced member of a project team.  Taking a temporary leadership job in another function.  Managing a group or discipline you know little about.
Leading change Launching a new product, service or system.  Dealing with a business crisis.  Reorganizing a team.  Resolving performance problems.
Adapting to high levels of responsibility A high level assignment with tight deadlines.  Representing the organization to the media or influential outsiders.  Acting-up in a manager’s absence.
Influencing and negotiating Presenting a proposal to top management.  Serving on a cross-functional team.  Managing an internal project such as a company event.
Overcoming obstacles Working in a situation where there is little or unclear direction from senior management.  Starting a new project with few resources.

Critically, a structured approach needs to be taken to job assignments if the greatest benefit is to be obtained, and a typical time scale would be 2 to 3 years for effective learning and consolidation.  The following questions will facilitate learning from a developmental assignment.

About yourself 1.  What strengths do I bring to this job?  What will help me?

2.  What are my developmental needs?  What might hinder me from being effective and successful?

3.  What aspects of this job may be particularly challenging?

4.  What can I learn from this job?  What do I want to learn?

5.  What do I need to know to do this job effectively?

6.  What might make it difficult for me to learn?

About the assignment 1.  What are the organization’s objectives for me in this job?

2.  What are my own personal objectives in this job?

3.  How does this job fit with the organization’s mission, values and goals?

4.  What do I know about this job?  What are the tasks, responsibilities and   requirements?  What are the key leadership challenges?

5.  What are my staff like?

6.  What is my boss like?

7.  Am I likely to encounter any resistance/  What steps might I take to overcome it?

8.  Who can help me?  Where can I turn for support?

9.  What other resources do I have available to me?

10.  Is there anything I would like to change about this assignment?

During and after the assignment 1.  How can I monitor my learning progress? (e.g. journal, coach).

2.  What am I learning?  Anything I didn’t expect?

3.  What am I not learning that I thought or hoped I would?  Why?

4.  How will I know I have learned what I wanted and needed to learn?

The assessment component of job assignments may be grounded in a gap analysis of the individual’s current job description and that of a target job to which the individual and the organization are aiming.  Alternatively, job assignments may form part of a fast-track programme for individuals perceived to have high potential but who lack experience.

The challenge component of job assignments comes from having the authority to do something new.  When taking up a job assignment, the sources of power or influence you bring will have a very different profile to that available to you in you ‘normal’ job.  Generally, these sources can be summarised as follows:

  • Referent Power.  This is the quality that causes an employee to emulate his or her boss.  Bosses who have referent power are regarded as role models; people want to become like them.  Their views, values, mannerisms, skills and even gestures may be studied and copied.  A manager with referent power exercises a strong influence on the thoughts and actions of employees.
  • Expert Power.  A manager who possesses relevant expertise can influence others because of this expertise.  This is the one area in which technical competence, skill and knowledge can contribute to a leader’s effectiveness.  Expert power is related to referent power in that knowledge is a respected characteristic.
  • Reward Power.  Since people are motivated by the desire to satisfy a particular set of needs, rewards are valuable tools for influencing behaviour.  These can take many forms, ranging from money to praise (especially in front of a worker’s peers).  Most managers control rewards; employees understand this.
  • Coercive Power.  Use of reward power is positive leadership; use of coercive power is negative leadership.  The stronger the penalty, the more negative the leadership.  Many managers use both types of power every day.  Whichever predominates sets the climate within the work group.
  • Legitimate Power.  Managers doing prescribed jobs within their rightful authority have, by definition, legitimate power.  Because they represent authority employees normally will follow their lead.  Only if managers exceed what employees believe are their limits of authority do the managers cease to have legitimate authority, in the eyes of their employees.

The support component of job assignments may take a variety of forms such as endorsement of one’s ideas and actions, coaching, mentoring, facilitating and providing an outlet for stress.

4.5    Developmental Relationships

In this section we focus on relationships within work settings that are particularly developmental, i.e. relationships individuals point to as being their key sources of assessment, challenge and support.  The first thing to consider is the various roles other people can play in the leadership development process, and then look into how the use of these relationships can be maximised.  Thereafter, ways to enhance access to these relationships within organizations should be considered.  The role of others in the developmental process is outlined below for each of the elements … Assessment, Challenge and Support.


Role: feedback provider, sounding board, point of comparison, feedback interpreter.

Function: to provide on-going feedback as the person learns to develop and improve; an evaluation of strategies before they are implemented; a benchmark for evaluating own level of skill or performance; assistance in interpreting and integrating feedback from others.


Role: Dialogue partner, assignment broker, accountant, role model.

Function: Perspectives or points of view different from own; access to challenging assignments (new or additional); pressure to fulfil commitment to development goals; examples of high competence in areas being developed.


Role: Counsellor, encourager, reinforce, cohort.

Function: An examination of what is making learning/development difficult; a boost in own belief that success is possible; formal rewards for progress towards goals; the sense that you are not alone.

The role of others in the leadership development process

Personal guidelines for capitalising of developmental relationships include:

  • Seeking out multiple relationships for development;
  • Establishing which roles are needed for current development goals;
  • Using, fully, the 360-degree field of relationships;
  • Not assuming relationships need to be long-term or intense to be developmental.

Organizational guidelines for capitalising of developmental relationships include:

  • Communicating overt organizational support for the programme;
  • Developing and maintaining clarity of purpose, expectations and roles;
  • Ensuring participant choice and involvement;
  • Providing careful selection and matching procedures;
  • Maintaining continuous monitoring and evaluation.

The most frequent application of developmental relationship initiatives are associated with:

  • The organizational socialization of new managers;
  • Preparing people with high potential for more responsibility;
  • Developing individuals from minority groups;
  • Meeting the development needs of senior executives;
  • Facilitating organizational change initiatives.

The forms that formal developmental relationships can take on, along with considerations around when to use them and the potential problems they may generate, are summarised below.

Form of relationship When to use it Potential problems
Mentoring – When senior mangers have the time, experience and expertise to share with junior managers.

– When junior managers need exposure to the perspectives and job demands of senior managers.

– There may be a lack of integration with other management development strategies within the organization.

– Senior managers may not have the skills and motivation to teach others.

– There is the potential for role conflict between the boss and the mentor.

– May cause resentment for managers who have not been selected to participate.

Peer Coaching – When individuals need experience or familiarity with issues and perspectives in other functions or parts of the organization.

– When individuals need coaching to get up to speed in a business knowledge or technical area.

– When improved cross-group communication is desired.

– When peers going through similar experiences need opportunities to learn from and support each other.

– Managers may not complement each other.

– The organizational climate may not promote open communication between colleagues.

– Managers may feel resentful about being asked to coach and assist other managers.

– Managers may not have the time or motivation to participate.

Executive Coaching – When a high-level executive has no peer or boss who can serve as coach.

– When there is the need for the professional skill of someone in behaviour change strategies.

– When a concentrated period of coaching on a particular skill is required.

– The experience and skills of the coach may not meet the needs of the executive.

– May be too expensive.

– May undermine other’s confidence in executive coaching if it is not kept confidential.

Coaching in Groups – When potential coaches are in short supply.

– When it is anticipated that peers can learn and benefit from each other.

– When increased cohesion among group members is desired.

– Some participants may need more individualised developmental attention.

– Potential coaches may lack the skills, time or motivation to mentor a group.

– Requires a fair amount of time and planning to be effective.

– There is the potential for conflict between the group coach and the managers of participants.

A Summary of the Issues Associated with Formal Developmental Relationships

The assessment, challenge and support components of developmental relationships are, as shown in the table at the top of this section, integral with the relationships themselves.

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …

Screen shot - Home Page


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s