August 9, 2017

Building leaders in a disruptive age: If content is king, then context is god


WHAT IF YOU WERE told that you have to build the leadership skills of your middle managers but you could not use training to do it?

That would be disruptive to your development plans, wouldn’t it? And yet, smart companies are spending less and less time and money on “training programmes” and more on interventions with higher impact on building leadership capability.

Or, what if you were attending a leadership training course and as you get your participant binder your facilitator tells you that the binder is not the content, but you are. The material is only a message. Or, even worse, what if you attended the training programme and there was no binder at all. You would think this was a terrible programme. After all, you must have that fancy binder to take back to your office and put on the shelf to gather dust!

Marshall McLuhan, a famous media guru from the 1970s and 80s was way ahead of his time when he said, “The media is the message, the audience is the content”. As it relates to building leaders, this is what forward-thinking leadership development and design experts have figured out. Most leadership training is content and topic based (coaching, influencing, strategy, etc.). The expert facilitator walks into the room and uses your valuable time convincing you that you need the latest model, framework, process, etc. You, as a participant, are left to figure out where, when and with whom to use it (that is the typically panicked last 30 minutes of a programme where you are doing “action planning”). Most of us can’t figure it out at all and within a few weeks abandon what we learned. It sounded good when we heard the “message” of coaching or strategy, but when we tried to move it into our “context” we couldn’t bridge the gap. Sound familiar?

If Content is King, then Context is God” is another great and relevant quote from Gary Vaynerchuk, entrepreneur and internet personality. Following that thinking, the shift we have to make in building leaders is to make all programmes about context first. This means being very clear on what exactly you want your leaders to be doing differently in what key situations in their world to positively impact the business. Only then you can build a path for them to get there.

We may want to teach our people to be more innovative at work. But what does that look like every day? What exactly would a manager be doing differently on the job in your company that would yield higher levels of innovation? Certainly, it’s not an innovation model. It’s the leader shifting his/her day-to-day behaviours and actions to create a safer, more open environment where employees feel they can speak up without the risk of being judged and that they will be listened to. Create and sustain that environment and creativity and innovation will increase.

In this situation, the mindset and behaviour of the leader has to shift over a sustained period of time to create that environment. A two-day workshop on “Building a Culture of Innovation” won’t do that. Instead, a sustained focus on leaders applying new behaviours in their key situations (context) over time will.

This article just touches the surface on how the best, new leadership development approaches such as “flipping the classroom”, four-line Learning and five-phase development are building future leaders mostly outside of the traditional workshop. If you want to develop your next generation of leaders you will need a next-generation approach to make that happen, starting today. The bottom line is to make sure that when you start planning your leadership development for next year and beyond you require who will help you to start with your context first and then match the content/message to your world. If you do, you will see a world a change in your leaders.

JAMES ENGEL, the author, is the chief learning architect for the SEAC for Leadership & Innovation (formerly APMGroup). He can be reached at
Source: The Nation Newspaper