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When Leadership Program Graduates Can’t Lead

More than once I have heard the complaint that leadership program graduates, excited to apply what they are learning, often find themselves thwarted by others back at work.  There are lots of reasons offered, bureaucracy, unsupportive supervisors, or lack of authority. There are also a number of remedies being tried...coaching, sessions on leading from the middle, and the recruitment of teams. These things may help, and yet until we address the most fundamental problem we are setting leadership graduates to fail, especially those from large institutions.


I found myself thinking about this when I was invited to facilitate a conversation about leadership with a department of 40 people in a large government agency of over 7,000 people. The group was dealing with an immediate crisis that was seriously impacting delivery of services. Adding to that, their division of over 400 had been without a director for many months. When invited, I was told that the biggest question plaguing the group was what to do when there is no leadership. My gut answer to what you do when there is no leadership, which of course sounds cliche without elaboration, was ‘lead!’.


I knew some of the people in the group and was scratching my head in wonder that so many people could feel stymied because one position was not filled, and I suspect they might feel the same way if the wrong person was in that position. I thought of leadership program graduates who express a similar sentiment. Why? It’s kind of a ‘catch 22’. Most leadership programs are still based on a ‘leader’ model, developing/training/preparing individuals with the skills to lead others. In the leader/follower model, if you are not the leader you are the follower and many leadership program participants return to professional contexts where others have more authority than they do. Granted most leadership programs acknowledge that leadership is not necessarily ‘positional’ at the same time they are promoting a model that is inherently hierarchical based on leadership ‘over’ others rather than ‘with’ others. LLC’s point of view, which I think bears repeating, is that we need a more expanded understanding of leadership as the process by which many people take action and learn together. I was curious to see what shifts if you reinforce an expanded view of leadership as a process rather than the lone actor.


I began the conversation with the group by sharing a couple of slides to reinforce the shifting leadership paradigm that recognizes the potential for leadership in everyone and the power of connected action. The deck included an example of what an informal network had been able to accomplish in the area of health innovation. Some of the slides are available here, although any reference to the agency has been removed. After a brief presentation, the group was moved into small groups to discuss the crisis and possible actions that they could take based on their connections with each other and with people outside of their division who could be tapped to help. The group was able to generate a lot of creative and actionable solutions that did not require a director or formal channels. What remains to be seen now is who among the group has the agency to step up and move the ideas forward after years of abdicating leadership to the formal positional leader. It is a leadership mindset shift that requires thinking differently about power and networks, and how things get done and about who can lead. These are questions rarely answered through organization charts in large institutions.


Without challenging the dominant individually centered model of leader, leadership programs are subtly preparing graduates to lead over or abdicate their leadership and be led. Instead, leadership programs can be helping individuals and groups understand network leadership to connect and lead with others across a variety of contexts, including bureaucracies.