Hump Day Wisdom: Can People Change?

Can people change, or is leadership development a waste of time and money?  the answer depends on our expectations.  When we think “all or nothing” we lose the opportunity of incremental value.

Last month, The Conference Board Review ran an article entitled “Have We Learned Anything About Leadership Development?”  This month, they printed a letter from a veteran of GE’s Management Development program who takes issue with the whole idea of leadership development, insisting that leaders are born (or at the least are already skilled at leadership capacities before they show up at work) and that we should focus on making people better managers.

His very thoughtful letter brings us quickly to the key question about leadership.  No- not the one that asks for an all encompassing definition.  The fundamental question is:  Can people change?  As a coach, I have to say “Yes!” or turn in my badge.  But that does not make it easy.

It also does not mean that an executive whose skills are not well developed will suddenly become a skilled resonant leader of people.  Like anything else, leadership capacities are a mix of natural talent, effective practice and coaching.  While all three are important in the mix, there is generally one that sets the limitations.

Here is an example.  I love the game of golf.  My natural talent is at best, middle-of-the-road.  No amount of skilled coaching or rigorous practice is going to get me on the PGA tour.  Does that mean I never take a lesson?  Never practice?  Give up the game?  Of course not.  Instead, I settle for and am pleased with incremental improvement- knowing that I am making the most of what I have to work with.  I expect and want the best from myself- my own best.

Leadership development of any sort is not going to make what Jim Collins calls a Level 5 Leader out of someone whose natural talent is average.  But incremental steps can mean a lot to the company, the executive and especially for those that the executive manages.

When we think all or nothing, we limit our options and the value that we can contribute.