As I reflect on my life, I find that the greatest growth has come from challenges that had me paralyzed at the time: believing I needed 34 hours in each day as a plebe at the Naval Academy, failing to stand up to a bully in the Marine Corps, trying to stay motivated and effective when I lost interest in my corporate job, learning to sell services to prospective clients, and understanding the depth of my arrogance and lack of curiosity as a coach and consultant.

These uncomfortable experiences were opportunities for refinement of the alloy of my character. And in each of these seasons I grew because someone invited, inspired, and exhorted growth.

When leadership development efforts fall flat, there are two primary causes that generally escape notice. The first is a focus on increasing participants’ skills instead of increasing their maturity. The second is the disconnect between the problems leaders face in real life and the training they receive.


Maturation

Too much leadership training focuses on giving participants skills and knowledge. I’ve found through some painful toe-stubbing that the most dramatic improvements in leader performance come from a different approach—focusing on maturity and character formation.

Especially when we’re talking about the most senior leaders in an organization, the problem is rarely that they don’t have the right information or skill, it’s that they self-sabotage because of some immaturity.

Humans mature asymmetrically, and each of us has opportunities to become more mature. In some areas, I act my chronological age (46). In others, I think and react like an old sage, full of peace and wisdom. And in a few, I think and behave like an eight-year-old child (when I get cut off in traffic, or when I hear feedback that threatens my self-image).

Knowledge and skills don’t fix my immaturity. I already know I’m not supposed to get angry and react vindictively, so “learning” that truth again isn’t an adequate solution.

What I need is someone to help me grow up. I need a guide to help me heal, develop, and be more selfless. This is deep work of the heart and soul, and I won’t trust just anyone to guide me. The best growth conversations and journeys are much more art than science. Even the classroom facilitators who have the depth required for this type of work are rarely expected or trained to do it.

So, what are some ways to help leaders mature? At Kairos, we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible, but so far we’ve had good success by facilitating group feedback sessions, introducing intentionally contrarian perspectives, focusing executive coaching conversations on issues of character and self-sabotage, and digging into relational conflicts to figure out where leaders need to grow.


Heat

Nick Petrie (from the Center for Creative Leadership) describes frustrating challenges— ones that are bigger than our current capacity to handle them— as “heat.”

I’ve found that most leaders are unhappy with the formal leadership training they’ve received over their careers. They have attended a series of workshops with generic and generalized topics.   Occasionally a training event will try to create some heat through case studies or through action learning (in which participants are given a cross-functional project with real potential impact in the organization). But because all organizations have plenty of natural heat, there’s no need to manufacture it artificially. The natural heat is 1) almost always hotter than the artificial heat, and 2) easy to find: “Tell me where you’re stuck.”

If a leader happens to be in a situation where there isn’t much heat, it means that individual isn’t being challenged. The solution? Give that leader a harder job: greater scope, bigger scale, more complexity— in short, a higher degree of difficulty.

Once we find the heat, how can we practically leverage it in our leadership development efforts? Asking, “What is the biggest challenge you’re facing?” is a start. Lately we’ve been ensuring each meeting and conversation with clients has been centered on a “hot” challenge that matters to participants. The energy there is palpable and drives the conversation. We’ve also found that relational conflicts are a powerful source of heat, because they get in the way of performance, and most leaders feel ill-equipped to tackle them. One key is finding the courage to stand in the midst of the heat with those who are stuck, and being bold enough to help them see their opportunities to grow (up).


I’m energized by this work. Ironically, helping others mature through their heat experiences is, in and of itself, a heat experience for me.   Getting better at this work is forcing me to acknowledge my own inadequacies as a leader and builder of leaders. I viscerally feel the challenge of holding space for other leaders— of creating a context for them that invites growth.

For those of us who feel called to help leaders grow, I believe the way forward involves further disruption of ineffective approaches that have become stale and draining. I’d love to hear about your own experiences. What has worked for you, and what hasn’t?

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  1. Chip,

    I want to hear more about the bully in the Marine Corps and how you would handle that differently now. Those of us working in big organizations, even ones with lofty goals like health care and biomedical research, find ourselves confronted with different forms of the bully who offer us a choice between avoiding conflict and accepting things as they are, or asserting our authentic selves in the service of our own principles or professional development. What guidance would you give?

    • Me, too, Chip … do tell!

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      What I lacked at the time was moral courage (not physical courage). I’d like to think I’d just name the behavior, set some boundaries, clarify expectations and consequences, and then follow through if he tried to call my bluff.

      I think it’s important to recognize that an individual with authority who is making a decision and expecting compliance is not necessarily a bully. That authority can be wielded with a bullying spirit and approach, of course, but I think too many people expect to be coddled and cry “bullying” when they don’t get what they want, with sugar and whipped cream.

      The general guidance is that in the moment of experiencing bullying, we can get paralyzed. If we shrink from the conflict in the moment (because it is too intense or too shocking), we’ll need to find the courage to return to the issue and stand firm. Courage is often the most critical missing ingredient, in my opinion.

  2. Chip, thanks for this timely piece. I was just lamenting a lack of “heat” in my current situation. Onward and upward!

  3. Chip, as always— and I’m coming from a position of knowing you for almost 30 years — you offer relevant, insightful leadership advice. Thank you.

    Oh…and I also want to hear about the bully incident.

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      KFed, it is great to “hear” your voice. You honor and flatter me.

      To add a little flavor to the story…

      I was a first-time Tank Platoon Commander, with about 15 Marines in my charge. My Platoon Sergeant (a gunny) was a brute of a man. 225lb, barrel chested, whip smart, with an inferiority complex that drove him to lead in an abusive way. He was capable and charming enough that his commanders had generally overlooked the bullying as a “cost of doing business” with him. And he was very effective at generating results– in the short run, anyway.

      When the time came around for me to write his performance review (“FitRep”), I chickened out. Instead of “ruining his career,” I followed the path of those before me and wrote him a glowing report. He got promoted shortly thereafter, and he got worse. (Surprise, right?)

      The most embarrassing part of it for me was that he benefited while those who worked for him suffered. I failed to protect those without power to protect themselves.

      I had some conversations with other leaders later that helped me gain a healthy perspective on it.

      I’ve lost track of him, but hope and trust that he has matured in many ways, as we all do.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Chip. Your point about maturity and character is spot on. In many endeavors, we try to fix the “how” without fixing the “why”, as in “why I am doing this?” We are often very skilled at manufacturing false why’s, so that we appear (to ourselves if not to others!) in the right, and the resistance we encounter can be chalked up to recalcitrance on the part of others.

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      Brother Five, you penetrate to the heart of the issue. My self-deception needs to be exposed. But I need to be ready to have it exposed.

  5. I appreciate the insightful article. Based on my personal experience, I feel as though I could have written this but because I don’t desire the level of personal pain that has been associated with my growth as a leader, these have not been occasions I have longed for. I’ve come to the point where I can see these opportunities for others and can direct them to embrace the hardship instead of fleeing but my personal experience is that I still tend to want to flee.

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      Indeed Rob. Our own hypocrisy is glaring at times. As you point out, even when hypocritical, our wise counsel is worth heeding. Physician, heal thyself!

  6. Chip,
    I resonate with your reflections and ideas. I’m drawn to consider the large amount of money companies spend on training or learning opportunities for leaders, especially when they require travel, lodging, and dining. How would you propose that a company most effectively uses its resources to engage their people in learning and development, or maturation as you coined? Your answer cannot be hire Kairos and Sycamore Way, because that is a given :)!

    In my own leadership growth, three things stand out as being most effective. First, my employers giving me opportunities to have external mentors to provide counsel on internal challenges within the organization and my leadership. Secondly, my graduate education has been greatly formational, and provided me opportunities to write projects that I will apply to my day-to-day leadership settings. Theory and practice have intersected beautifully in this. Third, has been leaders within the organizations I have been a part of who have noticed and attended to my own maturation journey, both as they relate to my day-to-day work, but also to my overall development. This sometimes has been confrontational and difficult, but that goes with the “heat” concept you referenced!

    Daniel

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      The best use of financial resources to develop leaders is invest in people (external help and internal resources) who are willing and able to help others mature. Both external and internal partners/consultants need vision for what can be different as we build leaders. If we only hire people who have seen it done in a lackluster way, we shouldn’t expect anything better than lackluster development. Finding these people is hard, no doubt, but I hope and believe it will get easier over time. This is an insurgency.

      P.S. One of the main reasons I like you and your work is you go deep and focus on maturity!

      Two of the three factors you mention resonate with me. I think my formal education has been less formational for me that for you, but having external mentors and colleagues who invest in my growth day-to-day has driven sustainable change.

  7. Chip, I really enjoyed your thoughtful piece. I agree that most leadership development programs – and participants for that matter – are focused on what I call development and / or coaching for results. This implies a short-term focus on skill building, which is necessary but insufficient to catalyze vertical growth. Generating self-awareness, empathy and learning to self-regulate are the first steps on the journey to true development. Then we must be willing to put ourselves into crucible moments (heat) and do the hard work required to change behavior and truly understand the impact of our actions on others. As the Marine Corps taught me well, development begins at the edge of discomfort.

    PS – thanks for sharing the story about our old friend ;)

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      David, reading your comment is like looking in a mirror. You’re using so much language that I also use.

      I also appreciate your point about how horizontal development is necessary.

      Oh, to be a young and foolish butterbar again…

  8. Kevin D. Russell

    Chip,

    I enjoyed your post on multiple levels. 1) as member of a leadership team where you focused the heat and where immaturity in members of leadership was exposed (thank you by the way great life-building experience) and 2) in my current serving role as a faith-based parole Agent for IDOC, where men are learning how to lead there own lives. I see this principle in myself and the men I walk with and can attest that when lived out, when challenged in the context of community, or as you say when I stand in the gap holding space, maturity happens. However, when simply addressing the issue at hand employment/housing/addictions the results are short lived because behavior re-ballasts where it is rooted in immaturity.

    As one who has been in the firestorm where you stood holding space for my fellow leaders to grow up into, I appreciate your team and the work that you do. These experiences have impacted my own maturity & growth as a leader of men.

    Blessings to you, your team and the clients with whom you stand.

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      Kevin, you faithfully serve in a tough role. Thanks for standing in the gap, holding space, and exhorting maturation. It was an honor (and a growth experience for me) to walk alongside you and your team. Thanks for the blessings, and back at you. (P.S. I love your use of the term “re-ballasts.” Very nautical for an Army vet).

  9. Chip:

    Thanks for this very timely article. I feel an intense amount of heat around me right now and I was feeling very overwhelmed and starting to become paralyzed by it. After reading this, I’m now viewing the heat as a positive so that I can learn and grow and ultimately become better through that heat.

    Thanks, brother.

  10. Great observations. Give yourself credit for having such a unique perspective. It’s not everyday that you read an article about leadership training that has maturation at the heart of it. That is a vulnerable place which is why it’s so groundbreaking. In the corporate environments and leadership positions I’ve seen, character has never been a topic of discussion in regards to leadership improvement. If it had, I may have stayed put.

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      Thanks for the insight, Darice. Those are dangerous and exciting conversations when they do happen, but I agree they don’t happen often. IMHO, I’m not sure Corporate America could handle *your* disruption, anyway. :)

  11. Chip, great article. The concept of advancing maturity is something that really resonates. The idea of speeding up the natural wisdom and maturity we develop over time through experience is an interesting one. I also encountered a legitimate bully as a growing leader, and while the experience was unpleasant (understatement), I grew dramatically as a result. I’d certainly welcome ways to advance myself and other leaders without the typical “school of hard knocks” approach. Keep on!

    • Chip Neidigh (Author)

      Thanks, Joseph. I’ve found that life naturally matures us, because it provides plenty of heat (like the bully you mention). I don’t think we can (or really want to help people) avoid the School of Hard Knocks, but we can accelerate and deepen our learning while school is in session. And if we’re trying hard enough, it’s almost always in session. Ding. Ding.