Chapter 8 Leadership by Lion Taming – No Cape Required


Leadership by Lion Taming

For ten years Caesar ruled with an iron hand. Then with a wooden foot, and finally with a piece of string.

—Spike Milligan

One of our most experienced colleagues and mentors told us:

When customers look at developing their people what they see on offer is either evidence-based learning, or “leadership by lion taming.” The risk is they get seduced by the glamour; they buy with their heart, not their head.

Allied to the current myth that hero leadership is the best model for organizations is the belief that the best development investment is to create leaders who feel like heroes.

Whether it’s taking one for the team by swimming across a lake, abseiling, or white water rafting, action leadership development is a popular choice.

Yet these activities waste money, time, and effort.

Of course, they’re great fun. No question.

The issue is, what observable leadership behaviors do they instill, support, and encourage?

Then there are the “sheep dip” development activities, where people are trained, in robot fashion, to supervise their team members through the carrot and the stick.

Some people say there’s no evidence for the success of these methods. We argue that there’s plenty: that these superficial approaches have the opposite effect to that intended.

When we invest in fads, such as leadership by lion taming, flying a jet, or driving a fast car around a track, we send clear messages to the people being led that their regular contribution doesn’t matter—it’s all about rewarding the hero. And if you climb the career ladder (preferably without a safety net and the ropes on fire), you can be a hero too.

Now, don’t get us wrong. If your organization is looking to become the next “Cirque de Soleil,” we can see the value of this approach.

Or if the purpose is to attract attention for a charity and do something totally daring and out of your comfort zone, we’re wholeheartedly behind you.

Why? Because you’ve chosen that challenge for yourself. You’re willing to put up with the pain of training and the fear of failure to benefit a cause dear to you and your family’s heart. We salute you. You’re an inspiration. We wholeheartedly support your efforts. This is heroism.

But is it leadership?

In this chapter we explore the importance of having a clear vision for leadership development, knowing the behaviors you want to promote in leaders and team members alike.

We look at the paradox of developing the inner person, contrasted with measuring the observable behaviors. The difference between pushing someone out of their “comfort zone” and tapping into their inner drive to stretch and challenge themselves.

We explore the iceberg model of development and the self-consistency theory, both of which can be used to harness personal development and change.

A client was asking for help, but could we discuss it outside the office? She warned that if anyone overheard the conversation, she’d be labeled as ungrateful and out of step with the organization.

The problem? Her top team had recently been sent on a “leadership” course run by a fire and rescue organization. The cost, a high one, had come out of her budget and, far from seeing the promised benefits, a macho culture was now running rampant in a previously collaborative team.

Motivated by activities involving climbing ladders, brandishing hoses, and races involving dismantling and reassembling equipment, the team returned expecting a higher level of energy and activity back in the workplace.

The good news was that they were very familiar with which extinguisher to use in which fire situation.

Otherwise, the benefits were far from clear.

The impact of this fell on front-line staff, who were given extra tasks such as reorganizing the stores and polishing obsolete equipment, much in the manner of the Home Guard expecting an inspection from Captain Mainwaring (a character from a UK BBC comedy program).

And again, don’t mistake me. Having a tidy store, knowing where to get your hands on the right equipment quickly, is important.

But this was above and beyond what was needed. The normal routines of her maintenance unit were set aside in pursuit of the unusual and heroic. Small errors crept in; tasks were left undone and complaints rose.

The crisis came when a health and safety incident nearly escalated out of proportion. Fortunately, the incident was minor, but the implications had shocked the senior team.

After debriefing the immediate incident and supporting the client to cover all the bases, we turned our attention to the underlying issues: What leadership behaviors do you need your direct reports to display?

Which of these do they already have? Which do you need to develop?

Leadership Essentials: Purpose

Having a big picture purpose statement for anything is essential. It creates a guiding star toward which to aim. And, like painting by numbers, you fill in the gaps and evaluate the skills and talents you already have to meet the need. It’s also a baseline against which to measure progress.

And there’s a difference between a vision and a goal. A vision is a picture of how life will be like in the new future, what success looks and feels like. It’s a clear image that will tell people they’ve got there.

Leadership purpose statements are defined by how people will feel to be part of the team in this new era; how running the department will look; what people will say about the team that’s different from today; what’s important to the team; what resources are available in this environment; what the challenges are, and how the leadership will help the team meet those challenges.

Goals are the action steps toward the vision. But unless you know where you are going, what’s important about that vision and direction and what’s expected of leaders in this environment, any actions will be directionless and uncontrolled.

Some people, including our client, like to set out the problems clearly too, just so that they know—and can be reminded—why they set off on this path.

Leadership Essentials: High-performance Behaviors

One in-depth area to explore is the leadership purpose. What behaviors are expected of people in this environment, such that others can see everyone working toward the same purpose?

These fall into four clusters:

  1. 1.Behaviors that support and encourage a greater breadth and depth of exploration and thinking
  2. 2.Leadership behaviors that develop and motivate others by finding out about them as people
  3. 3.Leadership that demonstrates the direction and purpose of the organization, department, or team, through building confidence, having impact and presenting well.
  4. 4.The achieving behaviors: being proactive, measuring progress, making improvements as you go, and having a success mindset.

Each team, department, or organization will need its own blend with an emphasis on one behavior cluster or another.

Typical of many back office teams, a logistics customer had a learning and development team that delivered well yet lacked visibility in the organization.

People on the front line were regularly sent on courses; they rated them highly but gave them no more thought once their busy day jobs took over.

Research identified this lack of visibility with the relatively low application of skills back in the workplace. And, given the shift to a range of online learning tools being developed, the client needed the workforce to be more aware of, and to value, their learning opportunities.

The irony was that this was a team of trainers who were great at delivering but less great at promoting their skills and successes. It’s a classic behavior trait of delivering the work, but not celebrating the quality, success, or impacts.

Since customer focus was a strategic objective for the whole organization, it was clear that this ran like a seam of gold ready to be mined.

Once the training delivery team created their purpose statement for what success looked and felt like, it became clear that the clusters to develop were in the areas of demonstrating impact and building confidence in others about the impact that great training had on the wider organization.

They also linked those behavior needs to the achievement cluster, because they realized that once a program was delivered, they quickly moved on to the next, rather than finding ways to prove, demonstrate, and share the impacts.

As expert workshop designers, they developed a program that both aligned with the organization’s bigger purpose picture and stood out enough to have the desired impact.

It also helped them develop their work in demonstrating the impacts of what they delivered to the business: people who attended their customer service training achieved meaningful results in terms of new business achieved, customers retained, and business expansion.

Leadership Essentials: Evidence

No one likes to see money wasted on ineffective training programs, and the simple addition of an impact assessment helps identify those wasted efforts and those that are having a significant impact.

Evidence is simply that: evidence.

However, it raises fears and concerns that dark secrets will be uncovered; hard truths need to be faced. An oft-repeated maxim about marketing is that half of it is wasted, but the trick is knowing which half.

The good news is that in today’s digital world we can benchmark and measure progress quickly, easily, and affordably.

So now you can look at the people who go through your development programs and see which method corresponds to their preferred learning style and suits them best. You can do the following:

  • Measure which topics people find easiest to relate to and which the hardest.
  • Measure the pace of in-person or live online learning events and adjust accordingly.
  • Test the average time to complete self-paced learning programs.

There’s simply no need to have “one size fits all” or “sheep dip” development programs anymore. It’s a simple matter to help personalize people’s learning, even within the wider framework of overall development aims and objectives.

Clients regularly ask us to create “personal development plans” (or PDPs) tailored to their organization’s high-performance competences and values. Different professions, such as the UK “GDC” or General Dental Council, also expect professionals to keep a PDP.

Notice the Less-visible Leadership Behaviors

Having a tailored PDP is as valuable for your one-to-one coaching programs as your team and group development.

It’s great for all types of leadership behaviors, especially for the less visible and underdeveloped behaviors such as the thinking clusters.

These internal “behaviors” are harder for traditional training programs to develop and measure. They often remain undervalued, with lip service paid to them.

We often ask people if they use the “plan, do, review” cycle in their project leadership, and most often the answer is “yes.” And then we ask how much time, exactly, they spend in each of these areas?

Typically, the “review” step gets the least time.

And what does a “review” meeting look like? Is it a “what went wrong, who’s to blame?” discussion, by any chance?

The thinking cluster of leadership behaviors are given so little time or priority, it’s no wonder that innovation and creativity are stifled.

We give time to things we value, and, typically, we value things we can see. Unless we go looking for specific behaviors, we can’t see the thinking, review, and reflection that’s a vital part of a learning organization.

In addition to the typical review meeting, there’s the practice of having a team write a review. That’s great for the authors, but unless that review gets widely shared and communicated it’s of little value elsewhere.

A review process where people invest time in reflecting on what worked, what might be done differently going forward, what really had an impact—and what didn’t—is of far more value than a report gathering dust on a shelf or tucked away in a digital cloud file storage system.

Use Coaching to Develop Leadership Behaviors

This is where one-to-one and team or group coaching come in—because professional coaches are taught how to ask those truly thought-provoking, powerful questions that move people to a deeper level of leadership behaviors:

  • More flexible thinking
  • Deeper, and wider, information search
  • Digging for more options, not just the superficial or first ideas
  • Making connections, joining up the dots between ideas, so that true innovation can happen

Developing the inner person isn’t a vanity project. It’s probably the most untapped resource you have in your organization.

If all your people do every day is the “doing” but no learning, creativity, or innovation is happening, then you’re going to be stuck where you are today, rather than moving forward to achieve your purpose.

When we value something we give it time. We throw money at it.

Developing the inner person isn’t yet one of those things. There’s plenty of global interest in personal, inner development: as the multibillion mindfulness and meditation movements remind us.

The Iceberg Model

The image that explains its importance, to most people, is the iceberg model, where 90 percent of our thoughts, beliefs, values, and emotions lie untapped and hidden under the surface.

In the past these emotions were feared, and even rejected in the workplace. People were asked not to bring their emotions into work.

Times have changed. In the global thought economy, we need people to have the energy and passion to sustain their motivation.

We now know that emotional engagement with the organization by employees will improve safety, efficiency, productivity, and profits.

Tapping into the inner person becomes essential.

The classic method comes from the days of “command and control” leadership: get people out of their comfort zones. Put them into uncomfortable situations and then expect them to behave differently as a result.

Most Western leadership development comes out of North American military training, so it’s not surprising that these were the methods used.

After all, your organization is just like a military operation, isn’t it? (Answer: probably not!)

Ex-military people thrive in transport and logistics environments where routine and attention to this kind of detail is vital. Or where crises are inevitable. Bluelight services, especially ambulance transportation, traditionally benefit from this kind of thinking.

Unsurprisingly, it’s less than effective in sectors where creativity and innovation need to flourish. Relaxation and comfort create environments where these ideas can be seeded and thrive.

And that might be an ambulance service or a distribution center run by robots.

One of our clients was challenged to transform a network of ambulance services. They used to be run in the traditional manner: van-sized vehicles operating from a city center location close to the control office.

Then someone said: “Why don’t we have our teams located closer to the likely accident hot spots, like the motorway?”

And someone else said: “and why don’t we have smaller vehicles for the city centre?”

And then someone said: “and how about using bicycles or tricycles?”

And someone else said: “and why don’t we take the A&E specialist to the emergency callout, instead of transporting the patient to A&E?”

Not all of these ideas were taken up by the particular regional service, but all these ideas are in operation somewhere in the UK.

Once again, context is everything. And why environment matters.

If you want to have focused, decisive meetings where targets are met and people get into action, holding those meetings in a low-ceilinged room will help. The focus is narrow and on what’s right in front of the team. Comfort doesn’t matter because you’re not going to be there long.

For broader thinking, creativity, and innovation, high ceilings and more light will help. Distractions and off-topic elements help seed new ideas and new ways of thinking. Comfort does matter, because the brain will leap around in new ways in low-pressure environments.

Once again, the development environment depends on what you’re trying to achieve. The delivery environment matters too, and both need to be aligned. More of that in part four.

The Self-consistency Model

One final element in the development phase is a reminder that your leadership development goals can be aligned with people’s own inner values.

People like to know that what they’re being asked to do, or develop, is consistent with their inner map of themselves.

Helping them make links between their own values and the values and purpose behind their development will speed up commitment and motivation needed to succeed in the development program.

Self-consistency theory means that we can do away with the “leadership by lion taming” fads that exist to stimulate and excite people.

You can save the thrills and spills for the celebrations, rather than the development days.

People get more lasting fulfillment and satisfaction from seeing the difference made by a meaningful and personalized program, and from seeing the impact it has back in the workplace, than from short-term sensory stimulation.

We see this regularly in the difference between the open leadership development programs we run and our corporate client work.

If you’ve been “sent” on a program, no matter how well meaning the sponsor was or how beneficial this might be to your future career, you’re going to be less committed to it than someone who sees how it’s consistent with their own values.

If attendance is a “reward” for past performance, there’s no guarantee that it will motivate people in the future—until the next reward carrot is dangled. This approach may work for some work cultures, such as sales, where competition and rewards feature highly, but it’s not a great basis for sustainable leadership.

Worse is when people assume that they’re being sent on a program to fix some kind of problem, when maybe someone has seen their potential and believes they’re doing them a service by putting them forward for development.

In contrast, people who have greater control over the development choice, or have worked with their line manager or human resources (HR) partner to shape their development path, show greater commitment to the efforts required to complete a leadership development program.

This is where those personal development plans, and step two, Discover, come in.

Having a discovery conversation that creates win-win in terms of leadership development is a valuable investment.

We’re not talking about spoon-feeding people here, or about setting up false expectations of promotion or other advancement, but rather, a conversation that helps people see how a leadership development program that they get to shape is an investment in their personal and professional development, not just a benefit to the organization.

Development Impacts the Whole Team

This is a conversation that needs to include line managers too. When adjustments need to be made to accommodate the learning commitment, it’s not fair to expect line managers and team colleagues to take up that slack without any support.

Having a clear sense of the future benefits of developing people and demonstrating support to the rest of the team during the development period is an integral part of the development program.

One client recently mentioned how undervalued she felt when she saw her colleagues getting up to go to the next management training session, while she was left to answer the phones and pick up the slack.

This is probably how you’d feel if it happened to you.

So the messages we send out all matter, whether they’re to managers, course participants, and the colleagues left to cover while participants are out.

Clarity about the messages you want to get across is vital for the wider success of the project and its intended long-term, positive, impacts.

When we’re asking people to give up their time—either leisure time or worktime that could be usefully spent getting the day job delivered—we need to be sure that the motivation is there.

When it is, the lengths to which people go to work together, complete their assignments, or learn new ideas is simply inspirational.

Leadership development is a huge investment. And it is one that must pay reasonable returns. By putting in the preparation to define the leadership needs and decide who are the best people to invest in, waste can be significantly reduced.

Additionally, by investing in the most untapped area of talent—people’s inner values, beliefs, and motivation—we can release huge potential, aligned with both the organization’s needs and people’s sense of themselves.

Modern technologies also give us the opportunity to personalize learning to a degree unachievable before. We don’t need to put people through such things as “standard programs,” and we can use coaching and mentoring support to further personalize the learning and develop people’s innate and individual potential even further.

The return on investment of this kind of development is both measurable and traceable. You’ll know where you’re getting the best returns and where to cut back and where to invest further to get the development results your leaders, teams, and your organization need.

Worksheet: Stimulus Questions

In this chapter we looked at the need for leadership development to be led not only by the needs of the organization, but also by the behaviors the organization is looking for—not by the fads and high-octane activities that we define as “leadership by lion taming”

In this reflective exercise, we think about not only the leadership behaviors you’re looking for as an organization, but also the messages you want to send out about leadership development.

Message Clarity

What are the top three messages you need to convey to the whole organization about your leadership development strategy?

Given the answers to 1, what style of leadership development do you need?

  • Adventure/outward bound
  • Interactive/engaging/game-focused
  • Interactive/intellectual
  • Interactive/emotionally driven
  • Lecture/theory
  • A mix of the above

Or something else?

Your Learning Blend

What’s the mix of learning methods that you need?

  • In-person
  • Live, distance learning—by video, audio, conference call
  • Self-paced learning (e.g., ELearning)
  • 1-1 coaching/mentoring
  • Group coaching/mentoring
  • PALS (Peer Action Learning Sets)

Use percentages to define what the mix might look like—e.g., 60 percent self-paced; 20 percent live, distance learning; 10 percent 1-1 PALS 10 percent 1-1 coaching, and consider your rationale for this blend.