Leadership Notes #49 – A Look at Leadership Development

(This series of “notes” first appeared in the YahooGroup “VenturingList” and are written by Michael Brown. I thought that they were worth sharing with the Commissioner Corps.)

In this issue of Leadership Notes, we step back a little at take a look at Leadership Development itself. And at how one can approach leadership development. I think this is an important topic to look at. This series was created to serve as a sort of informal, on-going “supplemental training” in leadership development, highlighting various resources (written mainly, but also videos and courses) that one may use to further their own and others leadership development.

Too often I find that many people, due to not being involved with other organizations, have never bothered to take a look at how leadership development can be handled. There are many ways one can approach leadership development, and it’s not a good idea to think that only one approach is the “right” one or the only one. As I’ve been involved in leadership development with several organizations for many years, I’ve had discussions with others, especially as some of the groups I am involved in have revamped, in some cases extensively, their LD programs.

First off, can leadership be taught? That may seem to be obvious, but I don’t think it is. In a sense, it’s all based on how you view leadership. Do you see leadership as something that is innate to some people and not others? The so-called concept of the “natural leader”. If that’s the case, then one can’t teach leadership, and it’s a waste of time to do so. There seems to be some who subscribe to this notion, with the idea that we as scout leaders need to identify the “natural leaders” among our youth, focus on them, and the heck with the rest. This is not a view I subscribe to, and I hope others are the same.

So, can leadership be taught? I would say yes, but like any other skill, some will take to it better than others. Just as if you teach music to people, some will be excellent, some ok, and some lousy. So, too, you will get really great leaders, ok leaders, poor leaders, and some just lousy leaders. With training, ok leaders may become great, poor leaders may become better, and maybe lousy leaders can become ok. And there may be some that no amount of training will turn them into leaders.

If leadership can be taught, how then is the best way to do so? Here, too, there are a variety of ways. And the BSA actually uses a few of these methods, as they are not necessarily competing methods.

One method is to have some training followed by putting what is learned into practice and then more training, putting that into practice and keep repeating. This can be done by having levels of training. The BSA has long used this method with the concept of immediate training (aka “fast start”), basic training, advanced training, and supplemental training. This has been done both with youth training and with adult training. Hence we have for adults fast start, leader specific training, wood badge/powder horn/seabadge, and various supplemental training (PTC, PLC, etc). With youth you have ILSx, NYLT, and NAYLE. What can be problematic and which can short-change this method is when people try to cram the training in with as little “put into practice” time in between as possible.

Another method deals with “what you present”. Do you present “pure” leadership training, or do you present position-based training, or some mixture of both? In pure leadership training, you present leadership development concepts that any leader in any position would need to know: situational leadership, team development, servant leadership, goal setting/planning, etc (many of the concepts we’ve covered in this series). As a person moves from position to position, they will need these skills, and can take them with them. In position-based training, you instead train for the position: Scoutmaster, Crew Advisor, Crew President, Treasurer, etc. As the person moves from position to position, they then just need to be re-trained for that new position.

Some organizations I am involved in focus on position-based training. They focus on what is required to do that job. Some organizations ignore pure leadership training, or handle that in separate training. There are advantages to doing it this way, as one can take the pure leadership training, then supplement that with position-based training as one’s position changes.

The BSA to a degree does a combination of having training that mixes position & leadership into single courses (WB, PLC, NYLT, NAYLE) as well as having courses that focus on positions (ILSx and leader-specific training). Thus, courses like WB, NYLT, et al are designed for one-time attendance, while one would take leader-specific training as their position changes. Of course, this can be problematic when you build in position-specific training into a larger course. If you already took that course when you held one position, to take the whole course again just to get the training needed for a new position seems overkill.

Another method of training is on “how you deliver the training”. Do you present the training in a workshop format, or something different? What I find interesting about courses like Wood Badge and the older NYLT was that the course is run with everyone being organized into an idealized troop. In this way, how the training is run is part of the learning experience, as one can see how their unit works. Where this falls down a bit is that in the BSA, we have different types of units: packs, troops, and crews, each of which operate differently (ships actually operate like troops in many ways, but may operate more like a crew). So the problem become that if you run WB like an idealized troop, that’s great for troop leaders, but of little use for pack or crew leaders. This is also a problem for NYLT which had to change this to accommodate the inclusion of Venturers.

Kodiak takes yet a different take in the “how” of delivery, avoiding the workshop format for a more laid back method of presenting the material layered on other activities.

Yet another method of training is on “how you determine completion of the training”. In most cases, if you sit thru the training, you are considered to have completed the course. You could have been sleeping thru the course, but you will be considered trained. Which is kind of lame, but that’s how it is in most cases. What I do find valuable is the concept of putting the training into use, and only completing the course once this has been accomplished. This is a hallmark of Wood Badge, but one that is seldom used elsewhere. It is used to an extent in OA’s National Leadership Seminar; it used to be used in Seabadge but has been dropped. It has never been used in NYLT, which is more or less based on WB. I have no idea of this being used in NAYLE (doubt it) or the Philmont Leadership Challenge. Other courses may include the concept of encouraging participates to set goals and put what they learn into practice, but, unlike WB, there is no mechanism to encourage or ensure this happens.

There is also the issue of getting people to actually take the training offered. This is something that has always puzzled me, why some would refuse to take training that would help them do their job better. In my professional field (and in others), training is vital. You take training when you take on a new area of responsibility. You take training to keep your skills up to date, and this training can take the form of formal training, conferences, workshops, reading, on-line webinars and more. If you don’t keep your skills up, you run the risk of being unemployable. Yet, why then do so many refuse to take the necessary training. Worse, they seem reluctant to event pickup the manuals, or read magazines or on-line resources. There have been various methods to combat this. Some is to offer training in a variety of formats, some try a punishment or reward system (reward groups who have a minimum number of leaders trained, or deny renewal of the group if those minimum number are not trained). But someone needs to look into the root of the problem as to why some refuse to get trained.

Finally, one can look at how training is delivered, or more precisely, WHO delivers the training. Can anyone be a trainer, or only a select few? And what is that criteria to determine who can train? Is there special training to be a trainer? What if some people have the equivalent training from other organizations? This in itself can be another issue. Too often I’ve seen in many organizations where the trainers, I believe due to the attitude of having only the best be trainers, turn into an exclusive clique who wind up turning away good people merely because they are known to the clique. Some organizations put in a long running process that people must work thru to be qualified to be a trainer, others do not. Sometimes having to prove oneself as a trainer goes too far, tho it’s usually good to have some kind of method to vet potential trainers.

When you take a look at how leadership development CAN be presented, you have a better understand of why is being presented a certain way, how it could be improved, or why one method may be better in some cases then in others.

As a challenge to the readers I will say this. What leadership training have you taken already? How, then, have you put what you have learned into practice? What should be your next course of action in your development as a leader: where it’s taking on a new position, taking an addition course, working to develop other leaders? And set a goal for this.