Ideas for Leaders #383

An Holistic Approach to Leadership Development

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Key Concept

Leadership development tends to focus on behavioural competencies, and how these can be attuned to create more effective leaders. This Idea takes a different approach: look beyond competencies and consider inner experiences as well. Such a holistic approach can help organizations and their leaders utilize a broader repertoire of responses to difficult situations.

Idea Summary

Traditionally, research on leadership development has put behavioural competencies under the spotlight; training, coaching, on-the-job experiences and mentoring are all intended to facilitate the development of these behaviours. But are these models too simplistic and incomplete for today’s complex business environment?

In a White Paper published by the Center for Creative Leadership, Marian N. Ruderman, Cathleen Clerkin and Carol Connolly argue that it is time to adopt a broader view, one that opens the door for knowledge from the brain-based sciences and contemplative practices. They propose a multi-dimensional model of leadership called a “Beyond Competencies Model,” which includes the working of leaders’ inner experiences (i.e. physiological, emotional and mental processes) as well as their visible actions.

According to Ruderman, Clerkin and Connolly, helping leaders understand their inner world leads to increased self-awareness, adaptive behaviours and responses, and more effective leadership. Their Beyond Competencies Model is made up of the following three components:

  1. Circuitry: this refers to the physical, chemical and neurological functioning of our bodies, which can influence behaviours. For example, learning how the brain processes pleasure and pain increases the understanding of how we navigate the world. Feeling pain at work can manifest in the shape of not making a deadline, being passed over for a promotion, losing a client, etc. While these contemporary triggers of pain may not have dire consequences, our bodies still react as if it were a life and death situation, secreting cortisol and other hormones that gear up the body for quick action.
  2. Inner Content: this refers to things like raw emotions, gut reactions and inner dialogue. These inner experiences define our relationships with ourselves, as well as shape our beliefs and emotional reactions to thoughts and situations. In fact, inner content can be considered a hidden compass that shifts the direction of leadership behaviour.
  3. Conscious Engagement: this is the ability to observe, modify and regulate mental processes. Whereas circuitry and inner content flow constantly, continually and often automatically, it is with awareness and practice that these processes can be directed. As such, this area offers the most potential for development in leaders, as conscious engagement allows them to choose a more mindful response to difficult situations.

Business Application

Many organizations already acknowledge that the ‘mind’ is important and that cognitive health matters. According to a Financial Times report from 2012, 25% of US companies now have stress-reduction programs; in addition, many world-renowned companies such as General Mills, Target and Apple, have begun to offer time and pace for contemplative practice, such as meditation, yoga, mindfulness, etc. Similarly, Google has sleeping pods for employees to catch up on sleep when needed.

Overall, the message from Ruderman, Clerkin and Connolly is that when looking at leadership development, though the focus should not be shifted entirely from behavioural competencies, it is important for organizations to also expand their gaze to look beyond competencies; this will help to bring many new supportive leadership practices to light. In other words, actively notice and be with what is happening in order to employ a broader repertoire of responses. 

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Idea conceived

  • May 2014

Idea posted

  • May 2014

DOI number



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