Elevated Sensemaking and the Key to your Leadership Development

As a professional in this field, I’ve literally been a part of, let’s say, hundreds of different leadership development initiatives.  All have the best of intentions – to foster new skills, knowledge, abilities, and experiences for those who attend for the betterment of the organization.  Great, right!?!  Well, not always…  New research is beginning to uncover the often missing ingredients for truly transformational development and in this article I will share what I believe are the most valuable findings that you can incorporate today.

Let me paint you a quick picture.  A room full of 30 eager leaders anxiously await new insight that will give them a recipe for their leadership success.  The intense and thought provoking session comes to a close as these leaders excitedly commit to new habits, behaviors and outcomes.  Two months later, nothing has changed.  The leaders resume their ‘everything is on fire’ job and fall right back into the same patterns.

So what are we missing? Two whitepapers from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) caught my attention and I’d like to take this opportunity to share their findings.  Specifically, below are two interrelated points I found especially valuable.

  1. Focus more on development, less on content
  2. Incorporate vertical development

Let’s start with #1. Anyone who has designed a development process has run into this problem.  You can hear it in your head, ‘we just have too much content to cover to spend time on that…”.  The need to provide more and more content perfectly highlights how we fall into the trap of horizontal-centric development. Let me take a moment to explain.

Horizontal Development: focus on information, skills and competencies

Vertical Development: focus on more complex and sophisticated ways of thinking

We all realize the need for development focused on skill and competency building.  However, we often overlook the critical need to come alongside leaders and support their way of thinking and mindsets, item #2. Nick Petrie, the author of these whitepapers, states

“The problem for most leaders, however, is that the cup of leadership knowledge is already full.  They have heard this all before.  They already know it; they just can’t be it.  The limiting factor is no longer the content (the leader’s knowledge); it is the cup (the leader’s mind).”

So we need to do both.  Given the fact that most development initiatives have a solid foundation in the skill and competency side of the equation, let’s focus on the elements of vertical development that create a shift from “a good experience” to something that can change one’s life.

There are three components to vertical development:

  1. Heat Experiences – a complex situation that disrupts and disorients his or her habitual ways of thinking.
  2. Colliding Perspectives – exposure to people with different worldviews, opinions, backgrounds, and training.
  3. Elevated Sensemaking – utilizing a process or coach to integrate learning and make sense of perspectives and experiences from a more elevated stage of development.

Of these three, which one do you think is lacking in today’s leadership development?  In my experience, it is hands down “elevated sensemaking”.  Let me share a quick case study.  A dear colleague and friend of mine recently took on a fantastic stretch opportunity.  She absolutely feels the ‘heat’ of the new environment (a turnaround situation), the exceedingly growing demands from an outcomes perspective, and the real chance of failure.  Thankfully, she is surrounded by professionals from many different disciplines and walks of life, which provides an opportunity to experience colliding perspectives.  As you might guess, elevated sensemaking is limited or missing.  Specifically, the time to evolve one’s thinking to meet the complexity and demands of the new environment.

So what can organizations do to build this into development initiatives as well as the day to day operations?  CCL would suggest three things:

  • Time: carve out time for reflection
  • Map: provide stage maps that show how their thinking has progressed
  • Guide: offer good coaches or mentors to help navigate the terrain and push their thinking

With these strategies in mind, you are likely saying to yourself, “I don’t have time do to that, I can’t even get through my emails” or something to that effect.  While I completely understand the reality of such statements, something has to shift that allows deeper development to take place in order to take advantage of these critical growth opportunities.

As a coach myself, I know this to be true. I have a personal coach and she regularly kicks my butt, pushing me to my absolute limit in what I feel I can do, what I can comprehend, how deeply I can stretch, and how much I can love. However, from my own first-hand experience, elevated sensemaking is hard and scary.  I know the comfort of staying within your preconceived limits as well as the pain and anguish when the ‘heat’ becomes too intense.  I know the feeling of driving forward while sensing the fear associated with my soul disappearing, shifting and expanding. The beauty that comes from these experiences is a knowing that this journey is of my own creation and I am the only one who can navigate through.  Elevated sensmaking, dedicating sacred time for my own discovery and growth, using a guide, and extensive reading and reflection has allowed growth in the past year that I never realized was possible and today I am grateful beyond expression.

So, my heartfelt call to action for you is this, it’s time for you to be selfish.  Demand the time, as well as the guide, as if your career literally depends on it.  In fact, it just may.

If you are interested in learning more about this content, please check out the white papers by Nick Petrie at the link below.  Thank you Nick for doing this research and sharing for all of us to learn with and from you.  Also, if I can support you in your own deeper development, send me a note as I would be honored to be a part of your growth!