What Do We Mean When We Talk About Leadership Growth?

I often hear HR people say “we need to grow our leaders”. 

Yet when I scratch the surface a little, what I find they’re actually saying is “we want them to learn some new skills and behaviours so they can be better leaders.”

Here’s the thing: growth is not the same as learning.

What’s the difference?

Learning happens when we acquire new knowledge, skills, and behaviours. We get more tools in our toolkit.

Growth happens when we develop a greater level of awareness, maturity and wisdom. We upgrade how we see, understand and approach things, and as we do that, we evolve our identity. 

Example: I might do a course on how to ask good coaching questions as a leader. That’s learning. Yet if I see my leadership role as primarily being an expert whose job is to give advice to my people, rather than to help them think for themselves, those coaching questions will likely be used once or twice, then rust in my toolkit.

If instead I work on upgrading my identity as a leader from one of ‘expert with the answers’ to one of ‘developer of people’, then when I use those coaching questions, the impact will be way more potent.

Learning vs. Growth. 

One of the best metaphors I’ve seen to represent this idea comes from Nick Petrie. Nick talks about filling the cup vs. growing the cup. When we’re focused on learning, we’re filling the cup. When we’re focused on growth, we’re making the entire cup bigger. We’re growing the capacity to think and act in more complex, nuanced ways that help to address more complex challenges.

Most leadership courses and programmes are still heavily weighted towards learning. We’re giving them the tools, but not necessarily helping them grow their capacity to operate at a higher level of leadership. Learning is necessary, but not sufficient.

Right now, what we need, more than ever, is leadership growth. We need leadership that can not just solve problems, but can also affect transformation. We need leadership that can be both firm and adaptable. We need leadership that embraces uncertainty and doesn’t feel the need to provide simplistic answers to complex challenges. 

This type of leadership can’t happen through learning alone. It needs a growth agenda. One that enables leaders to let go of old ways of being to create the opportunity for new ways to find a footing.

What does growth look like?

One of my own more recent growth experiences has been about upgrading from a ‘hero’ identity to more of a ‘host’ identity when I’m working with groups. Leading up to this shift, I’d noticed two things:

  • I’m often hired by organisations because of the refreshing energy I bring when I work with groups. In the past I’d typically play to that by being entertaining and commanding at the front of a room. People generally love it (and so do I!)
  • Participants consistently report that they get the most lasting value from a session when they get into rich conversation with their peers. 

At the end of the day, I’m there to help deliver lasting value. That end game requires me to go beyond being the hero at the front of the room (and needing the feedback that I was awesome) and instead step up to a less ego-centric role of being the host that enables people to connect and go deep. I can still play the hero when it serves the needs of the group - it’s that I no longer default to it.

That’s growth.

Some signs of growth include:

  • Greater self-awareness 
  • More emotional self-regulation
  • Greater clarity of personal conviction and purpose
  • Greater resilience in the face of challenges
  • Less ego-centric (focus on self) and more eco-centric (focus on the higher purpose and the system)
  • A more nuanced balance eg knowing when to stand firm and knowing when to flex
  • Less focus on reactive problem-solving and more focus on the long game

How To Grow

Here’s the thing: it’s easier to do learning than it is to do growth. 

Growth is hard work. It involves taking a damn good look at yourself, and seeking out feedback that might wobble you. It asks you to get out of your comfort zone, test some of your long-held assumptions, and feel scared. It risks you feeling like a failure and perhaps unworthy. It asks you to let go of certainty and embrace the messiness that is transformation.

If we don’t go there ourselves, often life will push us there anyway. 

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing a number of ‘tools for growth’ that can act as catalysts for your own leadership growth. These are proven tools I’ve used for myself and in my leadership programmes for years. They work!

Look out for the first one next week.

If you’re slightly less patient, check out these posts 🙂

Upgrade Your Identity

Three Tensions Leaders Need to Hold

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