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Imagination + Innovation = New Possibilities

October 24, 2017 Tom Kolditz

Today, we’re sharing words of wisdom from Thomas Kolditz, a retired Brigadier General and author of In Extremis Leadership: Leading as if Your Life Depended on It. Tom will be joining us this week at Linkage’s Global Institute for Leadership Development® (GILD) to accept the 2017 Warren Bennis Award for Excellence in Leadership. After more than 25 years in leadership roles, including heading up leadership training at Yale and West Point, Tom is currently spearheading a program designed to equip students at Rice University for real-world leadership as the Founding Director of the Ann and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders. Read on for his insights about the revolutionary thinking that helped form the foundation for this one-of-a-kind leadership program.

Today, I listened to John Lennon’s classic song “Imagine” on my way to work and, of course, now I can’t get it out of my mind. Imagination can be a terrific driver for innovation. For many of us who work to develop leaders, the reality of limited resources and organizational priorities can intrude on some of our grandest aspirations for development programs. But what would happen if we paused for a few moments, and imagined the finest development program we could design? What might that look like? Here are 10 specific characteristics:

  • Our program would be open to everyone who had an interest in developing themselves. Rather than rationing leader development to a few “high potentials,” the organization would consider the potential of all of its members and enable voluntary participation for anyone excited by personal development.
  • Every member of the organization could text their personal demographic information and personal preferences about development opportunities to a local number, and a helpful, artificially intelligent bot would process the personal information and, in moments, display an array of tailored development options for that person’s journey in the organization.
  • The program would take advantage of the “time value of leader development,” meaning that the earlier a person is developed, the more total impact the development has over time, and the more time for various strengths to interact to form a more complex, capable leader.
  • The program would use evidence-based development techniques and offer opportunities for tailored, one-on-one coaching.
  • The program would leverage validated instruments that are interpreted by qualified professionals who would assist participants in detailed self-examinations.
  • Top-tier, professional leader developers and coaches would drive the program. They would familiarize themselves with the organizational culture for months, and team up with seasoned long-term employees in key roles to ensure a close, supportive fit with organizational culture.
  • The organization’s top executive leadership, including the president, chairman and CEO, would aggressively endorse and support the program, yet not meddle.
  • Outcome measurement, not opinion or faith, would drive programmatic decisions. A director-level professional research psychologist would lead a team of trained researchers to objectively measure results—not merely process metrics, such as how many people participated and were they satisfied, but real outcomes in terms of increased capacity to lead. The leader tasked with producing results would not be responsible for measuring their own outcomes. Non-producing programs or portions of programs would be cut and resources would be reallocated to things that work. All professional employees would have their performance measured, and the measures would be used for decisions to retain, retain on bench, to reassign to opportunities in line with strengths, or to release them.
  • The program would extend beyond teaching skills or competencies to instead focus on participants’ self-identity as leaders, inspire confidence in leading, and shape resilience and emotional intelligence—all with corresponding outcome measures.
  • Rather than being viewed as a competitive edge and cloaked in secrecy, the program would be transparent, openly sharing practices, strategy, custom software, business models and data, in order to help peer institutions develop better leaders in the process.

Such standards were once imaginary, but have now formed a structured reality at the Ann and John Doerr Institute for New Leaders, a large-scale leader development initiative at Rice University. All of the design elements discussed above have been emplaced during the two-year start-up of the program and represent a set of procedures to guarantee measurable improvement of a student’s capacity to lead, at institutional scale.

The work that my team and I have done here has prompted me to think further: What would our future look like if we leveraged our platform as leaders to make each of these elements a priority—and settled for nothing less? At GILD, we have the opportunity to think in new and different ways about our own development as a leader—and the trajectory of our team, our organization and maybe even our community. Why not take it one step further and think about what’s next and what’s possible as we consider how to shape the next generation of leaders?

This might seem like a daunting task—but it’s not so bad if we each start with just one thing that we can do differently. It’s these steps and our commitment to becoming purposeful that will ultimately change leaders and organizations around the world for the better.

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