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Leadership Development Myths – Part 1

Jul 25, 2018

3 Myths of Leadership Development (Part 1)

An interesting thing about the corporate learning and development field is that it’s not based on a foundational set of principles or research. Its most effective practices typically come from hard-won experience, tradition and craft learned on the job. However, many of its common beliefs are really just myths, rumors, or clever marketing that have been repeated enough times.

Some of these misconceptions are baseless but innocuous, like 70/20/10 or 90% of what you read starting with the prefix “neuro”. Even though the research is garbage, getting people to think about connecting with others and doing things on the job, usually turns out to be a good thing. Identifying the specific roles of dopamine or serotonin in established management practices, based on some study of 20 college kids, is of little practical value. But, no harm, no foul…

On the other hand, some stuff that has gotten baked into the collective mindset of the profession really gets us off track. I’ve been working in learning and development for a long time and seen lots of these myths and misconceptions crop up over and over. This is the first of three posts in which I’m going to blow off steam about some of the biggest offenders:

Myth #1: The Blank Slate
At least as far back as Aristotle, there has been this idea that the mind is a kind of blank slate on which new ideas are written. Medieval thinkers, like Aquinas, called it tabula rasa. In Latin that actually means a wax tablet not slate, but you get the idea. You can call it a white sheet of paper like John Locke in the 17th century. You may not have read any of those guys, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau for that matter, but the people who built our educational system did. Their ideas shaped a lot of what we all experienced in school.

Whatever term we use, that thinking also shapes a lot of traditional training. If people are blank slates, I can just tell them what I want them to do (write the instructions on that white sheet of paper) and then they should be able to go do it. If we’re honest, that’s what a lot of training looks like: giving people a bunch of information and then sending them on their merry way. If they don’t actually do it, we blame it on lack of motivation, or chalk it up to poor “transfer of learning”, which is another squishy bit of L&D jargon.

Leaders are Not Blank Slates

Now philosophers and cognitive scientists can, and do, argue exactly how blank a slate the human mind is at birth. They can have a ball making fine distinctions about social construction, reification, and how anyone knows what a chair is. I sometimes read stuff like that for fun. (I know. I’m a strange individual.) But no matter where the academics land, this much is clear: by the time we get people in our leadership development programs, their slates are anything but blank. In fact, they have a lifetime of experience written on those tablets. That experience drives how they perceive the world and how they behave. And it can’t be erased with a simple swipe of a damp cloth.

So, what? Who cares?

Why, you may ask, should anyone care about obscure learning metaphors? That’s a fair question.

Well, let’s look at just about every corporate culture change initiative that has taken place in the last couple decades. There’s a lot of work articulating a new set of values and behaviors that the organization wants to see. There’s training to “socialize” those values within the leadership team, and then the management ranks. There are websites, videos, and lots of posters with pillars or radial diagrams. Maybe both. It’s all good stuff, but nothing changes, because nobody really wants to talk about what’s wrong with the current culture. That could be painful and risky. Why bother if we can just give them a new set of marching orders and be done with it? Unfortunately, not reading what’s already written on that metaphorical slate, leads inevitably to the pain and risk of doing the same dysfunctional stuff over and over again.

These days, my team does a lot of work with leaders on things like coaching and collaboration. Not coincidentally, those two things show up on a lot of culture change wish lists. About half of the work is getting people to see what they actually do currently. We help them recognize bad habits that get in their way and produce unintended results. We help them explore why that stuff happens to all of us. In the absence of that, we could throw all the tools and techniques we want at people. There wouldn’t be much change. It’s the combination of understanding what’s driving their current behavior and then giving them alternatives that truly makes a difference.

If our profession hangs onto this unconscious metaphor of the blank slate, I believe we’ll keep shoveling information at people and then wondering why they don’t do anything with it. But, I’d love to hear what you think:

How does the Blank Slate mentality show up in training you’ve seen?

Where could you have more impact with a closer look at the current state?