Why you should care about deliberately developmental leadership

Diane Nowell
Aug 13, 2020

As businesses the world over face unprecedented challenges in the months and years ahead, the case grows for fostering deliberately developmental leadership (DDL).

DDL is based on the concept of the deliberately developmental organisation, as proposed by renowned Harvard professor of Psychology Robert Kegan and his ‘An Everyone Culture’ co-author, Lisa Lahey Laskow.

DDL describes an approach to leadership that’s less an adopted management style and more a defining philosophy. It stands apart from other learning and development strategies by prioritising personal growth in workplace culture, elevating its status from peripheral consideration to core business function.

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This people-first doctrine represents a shift in emphasis for most CEOs – even those who are already rejecting established corporate practices in favour of an approach that values diversity and promotes a broader engagement with individual and group wellness.

Advocates are unequivocal about its transformative power: Kegan and Lahey Laskow claim that the scale of disruption of this leadership model is matched by an equally profound shift in organisational cohesion and growth that more than justifies the transition and delivers an enduring legacy.

Redefining the terms of engagement

What separates DDL from other leadership trends?

In deliberately developmental organisations (DDOs) every member of staff at every organisational level is committed to an intense and continuous growth journey. It touches even the most quotidian processes.

It drives policy in a way that goes beyond box-ticking, upending accepted practices – meetings, new hires, reviews, promotions – by fundamentally and permanently reframing the relationships between people and the businesses that employ them, to the benefit of both.

A DDO is a source of support and inspiration, encouraging employees to think big and strive for both personal and organisational success

For leaders who view L&D as the periodic application of learning programmes to ‘A-list’, high-potential employees, the idea of promoting opportunities for personal and professional development more widely may be puzzling. That a business could gain a significant strategic advantage while pursuing profitability and ‘vertical development’ may sound radical.

Yet, by making this leap of faith, leaders of DDOs are already demonstrating that adopting more agile business practices is enabling them to explore new routes to long-term sustainability in an uncertain world.

David Danzig, Director of workplace culture specialist O.C. Tanner Europe believes that the emergence of DDL is a response to calls for a more inclusive multi-stakeholder leadership model that better reflects twenty-first-century concerns.

“A deliberately developmental leader is the only type of effective modern-day leader. Traditional leadership, in which control and power are key, is being rejected outright by today’s generation.

Effective leaders are inspiring mentors, advocates and influencers who help employees to succeed, learn, grow and find meaning in their work. A DDO is a source of support and inspiration, encouraging employees to think big and strive for both personal and organisational success.”

Next-generation leadership goals

At the heart of DDL is the belief that problems pave the road to greater fulfilment: no-one achieves meaningful happiness without experiencing some setbacks. Even a degree of overwhelm can be productive, as long as you know how to handle it.

When properly supported, people will change and grow, transcending their existing anxieties and limitations – as long as they’re free to reveal their weaknesses without fear of censure.

Feedback, therefore, plays a pivotal role in both developing a workforce and pursuing profits. However, it’s essential to recognise that the purpose of feedback is to support growth, not to mete out punishment.

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Developmental leaders view the feedback process as an integral component of mentorship: an essential conduit to productivity and progress. Incorporating helpful feedback without fuelling a blame culture requires balance and reflection, as well as honesty and insight.

Derek Irvine, from performance insight platform Workhuman, sees DDL as a highly effective way of driving development and reinforcing trust. Both are essential for the creation of a robust culture where everyone is valued.

“A DDL understands that learning and development are most effective when they’re supported by collaboration, feedback, and practical application. An ongoing loop of feedback allows employees to take ownership and accountability for their own development.”

No leader oversees the entirety of the L&D process in a deliberately developmental organisation. Employees understand that it’s all right to take risks and learn from their mistakes. This is an approach to L&D that permeates every aspect of a business, rather than occupying a discrete space for a few hours a month. Well-organised peer groups are also a vital source of momentum when driving the DDO transformation.

Susy Roberts, executive coach and founder of international people development consultancy Hunter Roberts highlights the benefits of collaborative accountability within a culture of psychological safety:

“In a DDO, everyone is truly empowered and accountable. Individuals know where they can and can’t make decisions and work with a much more collaborative approach. Everyone needs to be prepared to give and receive feedback because this is a critical step towards transformation.”

Securing a foothold in a post-crisis economy

Sam Gilpin, MD and Head of Europe at leadership consultancy YSC Consulting views the shift towards DDL as a crucial part of creating a more secure response to the economic downturn.

“As the economy enters a new stage of crisis, it is important for leaders to identify what collective mindset shifts they need to stimulate in order to prepare their organisations for it and other catastrophic events that are inevitably on the horizon.

In a DDO, everyone is truly empowered and accountable

In just the last few years organisations have faced two so-called ‘once in a generation’ economic crises, so the current response may be seen as a futureproofing of the corporate culture to allow organisations to be adaptable to external events while accommodating the development of its employees.”

For some businesses, the need to respond to the pandemic speedily may have stifled longer-term growth and development planning. In contrast, others have begun reverting to a more bureaucratic and risk-averse pre-crisis culture. The need for leaders to show courage, to invest in systems that promote diversity and to pay attention to a broader talent base has never been greater.

Building a deliberately developmental organisation

There’s no single personality type that’s uniquely suited to the deliberately developmental leadership model. Instead, leaders choose to embrace the attitudes and skills that underpin a deliberately developmental approach.

David Danzig believes that developmental leaders model humility and patience and demonstrate advocacy and mentoring skills:

“Importantly, great developmental leaders connect employees to three specific things: purpose, accomplishment, and one another. They show how their employees’ work makes a difference, how it furthers the company’s purpose, and why it matters. They teach employees how to succeed and help them to achieve great things by connecting them with new skills and experiences.”

For Mary Gregory, author of the bestselling book, ‘Ego: get over yourself and lead,’ successful leaders are also consciously aware of their individual development, as well as that of their employees:

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“A deliberately developmental leader is a conscious leader, committed to their own developmental journey and building greater levels of self-awareness and capacity to manage themselves and their impact effectively.

However, I often talk about the ‘Leaders Dilemma’ – the imbalance in many organisations of completing the task at all costs, rather than focussing on how we are behaving. The resulting hard-nosed, aggressive cultures inhibit people’s ability to perform at their best.”

Kegan and Lahey Laskow assert that the prioritisation of performance culture inevitably causes a massive waste in resources – ‘the second job no one is paying for.’ Gregory agrees. She argues that businesses lose out as people “spend time covering up, hiding and not feeling safe enough to bring their full selves to work.”

This misuse of energy and creativity is more than a time-suck. It ringfences our weaknesses, implies that having room for additional growth and learning is unacceptable and encourages others to cover up their failings as everyone conspires in an elaborate pantomime of corporate fakery.

People deserve better.

Shifting the paradigm

Deliberately Developmental Organisations are businesses that target ‘vertical development’ to deliver a strategic advantage. Dr Alan Watkins, neuroscientist, bestselling leadership author and founder and CEO of Complete believes that such an approach is critical to long term sustainability in an increasingly disrupted world.

This is not the same as getting better at what they are already doing, it is about levelling up and bringing online new capabilities that were previously unavailable

“Leaders today are facing an increasingly complicated world beset with numerous wicked problems that can’t be solved by applying conventional thinking or simply improving skills. Many feel overwhelmed and are struggling to keep up with the changes. They are, as Robert Kegan says, ‘in over their heads.’

“But it doesn’t need to be this way. Leaders can meet the increasing level of complexity by developing themselves, speeding up their minds, improving the quality of their thinking and step-changing their energy levels. In short, intentionally evolving. This is not the same as getting better at what they are already doing, it is about levelling up and bringing online new capabilities that were previously unavailable.”

Kegan and Lahey Laskow’s ‘everyone culture’ means that everyone wins. Not just a few individuals earmarked for greatness, or those already on a stellar career path, but everyone. In a DDO, employee growth is built into a company’s operating system, where attention to profitability and human development are seen as two sides of the same coin. Mutually inclusive rather than exclusive, with an integrative approach to leadership at the helm.

Diane Nowell

Writer and communications consultant