Early in my career, I learned the importance of walking the talk: doing what you say you’re going to do.

So, in approaching a new assignment to design a leadership development program (like the one I’m working on now), I have to admit it would be very easy simply to copy from the dozens of other leadership development programs that I have developed. If I did that, though, I wouldn’t be walking my talk. My fundamental theory of organizational development states that every culture is unique and therefore every program has to be designed from scratch. While I may go back and look at what I have done before, I detach myself from the analysis and evaluate everything as if it were fresh information.

Because unless I can answer the question, “Will it fit in this culture?” in the affirmative, I have to find another way.

The first step of my design process is what I teach other trainers: immerse yourself in the subject. Lately I’ve been in heavy immersion, reading biographies of famous leaders, reviewing the great books on leadership, writing down stories from the recent past that involve leaders doing great things for their people and their organizations. Immersion accomplishes two things. First, it gives me a wealth of information that I can access when facing a group of savvy leaders who ask lots of questions from unexpected perspectives. Second, it helps me find the right language for the best possible training objectives for this particular program.

Instructional designers may tell you to start with the objectives, but I don’t know how you do that without immersing yourself in the available knowledge and in the culture of the organization you are serving.

Still, I have to admit that there are certain leadership models and practices that I return to because they contain wisdom that applies to many cultures and, most importantly, allow the leader enough freedom to personalize the approach involved. These will not work in every culture in every stage of organizational development, but they contain essential information that can make every leader more effective:

  • Dr. Paul Hersey’s Situational Leadership™ has been around for years and remains a vibrant, practical theory of leadership. The key to Situational Leadership™ is balancing flexibility with consistency by matching one’s leadership approach to the readiness level of the follower. The consistency comes from responding to specific indicators with a specific behavioral response; the flexibility comes from adjusting that response as the follower’s readiness level changes. What I like best about Situational Leadership™ is that it’s all about finding the leadership approach that will be the most helpful to that follower at that particular moment. For more information on the theory and certification, go to The Center for Leadership Studies website.
  • Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge is a research-based approach that identifies five leadership practices common to successful leaders: Challenging the Process, Inspiring a Shared Vision, Modeling the Way, Enabling Others to Act and Encouraging the Heart. The authors also identified what followers expect from leaders, what they call The Credibility Factor. People expect leaders to be honest, competent, forward-looking and inspiring. These practices and factors are anything but dogma; the authors encourage each leader to find their own way of manifesting leadership. The latest edition of The Leadership Challenge is available on Amazon.
  • The third source I recommend is Now Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton. While this is not a book about leadership per se, all leaders need to discover their personal strengths and encourage others to discover theirs if they are to get the best out of their people. As Buckingham put in a speech he gave a few years ago, “A great manager turns one person’s talent into performance.” Within that statement are several insights: that each person working for you is unique; that each person working for you has untapped potential; and that each person working for you deserves your time and attention. The book is also available on Amazon.

So, which am I using in my current program? The one that will work best in this particular situation is The Leadership Challenge, but I will be integrating that information with knowledge from many other sources, some of which would fall into the category of “unexpected.” These include Keith Johnstone (who writes about improvisational theatre), Jennifer James (a cultural anthropologist), Robert Morrow (novelist and author of Ringing True) and a few of my own theories that should resonate in this culture.

There are two takeaways from this post. First, for those of you reading this who do not have access to leadership development programs in your organization, I want you to know that the answers to many of your questions and solutions to many of your leadership problems are available to you in the sources I mentioned. Second, no matter what leadership model you choose to anchor the design of your leadership development program, don’t choose it because you love it or you know it—choose it because it’s the best possible fit for the culture you’re serving.

And if you don’t find anything that fits . . . design your own model. If you really take the time to know an organizational culture, you will find certain values, visions and practices that might work better than anything you can get off the shelf.

Photo Credit: © Ermell | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos


About Bob Mendonsa

Bob Mendonsa is an experienced, engaging facilitator with over twenty years of experience delivering and designing leadership and organizational development programs at all organizational levels in a wide range of industries. Bob’s body of work also includes significant experience in team building, human resources and assignments as the top HR/OD executive at three different companies.

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