The Missing Ingredient in Leadership Development

Large field of grain

It’s spring in Minnesota. The sun is up early. The temperature during the daytime is pleasant and just perfect for leaving the bedroom window open a crack at night. When it rains, the air smells wonderful. Kids are playing outdoors again. I once again need to watch for bikers and joggers when I’m driving. Gardeners have been tending to their soils and plants (and cursing newly sprouting weeds). This is easily my favorite time of year!

Thinking about those gardeners, as well as my in-laws who are (sort of) semi-retired farmers, I see a valuable lesson in leadership development.

What’s the image that comes to mind when you think of gardening or farming?

For me, gardening brings to mind:

  • Seeds and bulbs
  • Plants
  • Flowers
  • Weeding
  • Rain
  • Pruning
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Peppers
  • …and more

And for farming I think of:

  • Corn, beans, and other crops
  • Tractors, implements, and equipment repairs
  • Barns
  • Rocks and rock picking
  • Rain, sun, and high winds
  • Deer and racoons
  • Fences
  • …and other things

(You might have guessed that my second list is influenced by having been married to a farmer’s daughter for 30 years and having worked in the fields on a few occasions.)

Something very important is missing from both lists, though. It is something most people never think about but is vital to the success of both gardening and farming. It’s also critical to effective leadership development.

Preparing the soil.

No garden or farm crop will thrive and produce if the proper soil conditions don’t exist. The same can be said of leadership development. Leaders will not develop if the right mindset is not present.

The mind is to leadership development what soil is to gardens and farms.

Successful gardeners and farmers pay careful attention to proper nutrient and moisture levels in their soils. They work hard to adjust those factors in specific ways to produce the intended crop. Similarly, the proper cognitive conditions need to exist for leadership development to occur.

Recent research1 explored a concept called leader developmental efficacy. This is abbreviated as LDE and is simply whether someone believes they have the ability to develop as a leader. It may appear confusing, but it really isn’t. If you believe you have the ability to grow in your leadership, you have LDE. If you don’t believe you can grow in your leadership, you don’t have LDE. That’s all.

However, there are two critical points that must be understood to see the real power in LDE:

  1. LDE predicts engagement in leadership development activity, and
  2. LDE can be developed.

The connection between LDE and engagement in developmental activity is rather intuitive. If I believe I can do something, I’m probably more likely to do it (assuming the activity is available to me). That’s rather straightforward.

However, I think that most leaders miss the second point. They don’t even think about it, and you’ll see in a moment why this error is as fundamental as a farmer’s ignoring the condition of his soil.

As has been pointed out many times in this blog, the most effective leaders develop other leaders. In our discussions of that, most of our attention has gone to the developmental activity. We’ve explored a lot about how to develop leaders. The problem is that that’s like the farmer spending all his time and effort on planting and weeding and harvesting, but never preparing the soil for effective crop yields.

If you know anything about gardening or farming, you know how crazy that is!

So how do we prepare the “soil of the mind” for leadership development? Research1 describes three key elements in building a leader’s belief in their ability to grow as a leader—their LDE.

Recognize Past Successes at Development
When you acknowledge the successes that your developing leader has had in experiences designed to help them master leadership, you show them how they have already been effective in their growth process. If you want them to improve their ability to listen to others, acknowledge when they show progress in effectively listen to others. If you want them to grow in their ability to synthesize stakeholder demands, acknowledge when they grow in that leadership skill. Shine light on their already successful mastery experiences to further build their LDE.

Help Them Observe Others Succeed at Development
When you point out others who are growing in their leadership, and tell your leader how that person is growing, you’re providing a model to observe. Most of us have experienced how helpful it is to observe others engaged in an activity we’re trying to learn. For example, observing excellent vision casters helps me be a better vision caster. These vicarious learning models are important to building LDE.

Encourage Them in Their Success
It’s my personal belief that encouragement is the most powerful of the three techniques for building LDE in others. Encouragement is a universal “fertilizer.” Encouragement is the right nutrient for virtually any soil condition. When you encourage your developing leader, their LDE mindset will be supplemented with just the right attitudes, hope, and belief to continue growing as a leader.

Whatever leadership development techniques follow these LDE-building strategies, you’ll know that the cognitive soil is prepared for the best possible leadership development outcomes.

Complex and constantly changing organizations need leaders who not only care about development, but are confident in their ability to develop… Selecting leaders with [LDE] and further fostering this capability in them through master experiences, vicarious learning, and [encouragement] can unlock ongoing development behavior.2

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo by Cornelia Büchse. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

1: Rebecca J. Reichard, Dayna O. Walker, Stefanie E. Putter, Eric Middleton, and Stefanie K. Johnson, “Believing is Becoming: The Role of Leader Developmental Efficacy in Leader Self-Development,” Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 24, no. 2 (2017): 137-156.
2: Rebecca J. Reichard, Dayna O. Walker, Stefanie E. Putter, Eric Middleton, and Stefanie K. Johnson, “Believing is Becoming: The Role of Leader Developmental Efficacy in Leader Self-Development,” Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 24, no. 2 (2017): 153.

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