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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Why Leadership is Learning - A Case Study

Why do we talk so much about growth? Let me illustrate with an informal case study.

I’ve been working with a new leader for several months. This person was highly successful as an individual contributor, even creating a role where she moved between stores to perform tasks that would normally belong to local staff. In doing so, she trained and mentored local personnel. She is a trouble-shooter, a problem-solver, and she is highly driven. She’s very good at her job.

So, naturally, senior management decided that she was ready to promote into an executive position. They gave her a team of five at a busy, high-profile location. She hasn’t really changed what she does; instead, she’s only responsible for showing five people how to do the same thing.

But it isn’t going well. She’s struggling to expand her technical competence to the five people on her team.

Why? Because the behaviors that served her well as an individual contributor no longer work. Take one simple behavior: how she talks about her accomplishments to her supervisors. The field in which she works is “a man’s world”, and she has developed the ability to show off her wins. She’s practiced a certain way of telling her story until the words are second nature. And she doesn’t have another behavior for the new situations, such as when she’s sitting with her team, trying to recognize their contributions. She literally doesn’t know what to say. So she says the wrong thing, and they feel offended and minimized, or she says nothing at all, and they feel unrecognized.

This lack of behavioral options produces some very interesting moments. There is a constant tension; everyone involved knows there are lots of feelings (emotion reactions, expectations of future discomfort based on previous interactions) but nobody knows what to say. And trying something new is literally terrifying. So this leader and her team sit in silence, failing to recognize the elephant sitting next to them. A simple elephant, really, but one that seems so big and impossible to chew that this leader can’t take the first bite.

What’s the answer? This leader needs a way to analyze the situation, figure out what behaviors might be productive, and then plan and actually perform one or two. This is learning. If she does this a few times, then she will have a few new productive leadership behaviors, the other members will begin to build new emotion relationships with her, and her technical competence will be unleashed to create success in her team. That’s the full definition of leadership in action: learning, relationships, vision.

Right now, though, she’s stuck.

Here are my questions for you:

  • Right now, when do you sit in uncomfortable silence, not knowing what you should do?

  • When does every action you perform seem to make the situation worse?

  • In what moments do you just not know what to do?

Whatever moment you just pictured, that’s where you need to learn. And this learning is how you build relationships that make a vision become real.

But that's not a final answer for the leader in our case study. The natural question after describing her predicaments is, how exactly does the functional approach help her (or any of us) move forward from that situation?

So, our example leader is sitting awkwardly in the room with her team members, with no idea how to compliment them. But, since she read the beginning of this article, she knows that she needs to learn. She needs a new way to talk about the team’s successes, one that doesn’t put her at the center of the story.

What does she do first?

She asks herself what effect she wants to have on the other two functions of leadership, vision and relationships. First, she wants to reward her team members for their successes - that’s a positive emotion reaction that will over time build a positive emotion relationship. She also wants to point out exactly what was successful - an information interchange - and how it contributed to the success of the team and organization - a connection to vision.

Those three things are the content of her compliment, what she wants to say. That might be enough to get her started, perhaps with a tiny bit of insight about the proper way to give compliments, how the members might receive the compliment, and what the members might do with her compliment.

But let’s say she is still unsure how to talk about the team’s success. She needs more examples, more specific ways to have this conversation. Perhaps she feels that uncomfortable topics might come up as part of the compliment because the team members might want to know what they can do better. So she should check out Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenny, or talk to someone who she knows is good at this skill. These are examples of structured learning and modeling, respectively, and these learning places help avoid the pitfalls of trial and error.

Because our theoretical leader is motivated to be excellent at this behavior, she will also go through the entire learning cycle. This ensures that she turns this first attempt at giving a compliment into an ongoing practice, one that improves with each iteration. This cycle structures her learning, pointing out the specific benefits and impact of her new behavior in a way that maximizes her reward for the risk of doing something new.

See how we apply the three places to learn and the adult learning cycle to reduce discomfort and move through a learning experience? These tools are an invaluable part of the functional approach, and this leader is now prepared to try something new in a situation where she was stuck.

As a result of this risk-taking, the person in our case study is able to lead her team more effectively. That’s leadership within the functional approach.

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