Leadership development shouldn't be exclusive to high-level staff. Rather, all employees should possess an understanding about leadership from many perspectives.

In the March 2011 issue of T+DStephen L. Cohen presented a leader development value chain that intentionally made a distinction among leader (person), leading (situation), and leadership (system). He identified leaders as C-suite executives, first-line supervisors, or those in the pipeline. We propose that these leaders, who conduct leadership as a function of their position, are engaged in capital L leadership. On the other hand, lowercase l leadership includes anyone, regardless of title or position, who interacts with others in the workplace. Leadership, in our view, is a process that involves the interactions and relationships between the leader and others. This view of leadership enables anyone to develop as a leader.

Cohen's view of leadership focuses on the development of the leader's characteristics (knowledge, skills, and abilities) and behaviors. In addition to the characteristics and behaviors, our view focuses on the development of the leader's attitudes and values. Taken together, this ensures alignment between doing and being—which is crucial for individual and organizational performance. Attitudes and values can be formed through reflection and mentoring (as shown in Figure 1).

Reflection and mentoring provide leaders an opportunity to consider the impact and effectiveness of their characteristics and behaviors through a feedback loop. For example, an organization may determine that it is important for leaders to be compassionate in dealing with others. A leader can easily take this message of compassion and employ it in his interactions with others. However, without the reflective feedback loop (for example, consideration of personal observations of own behavior used to update knowledge), the leader may fail.

Imagine a leader who is successfully compassionate when dealing with others in most situations. But in some contexts or circumstances, or even with certain personality types, that same compassionate stance may not yield appropriate results. Reflection, whether individually or guided by a mentor, serves as a learning process to enable a leader to become more effective. Talent management is a strong vehicle to develop these capabilities.

L.E.A.D. as an enabler of talent management

At the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, we have been in the business of developing leaders of character for some time. We developed the L.E.A.D. framework as a lens by which to view and improve our leader development program. It can be used to create a strategic design for leader development programs within an organization. Specifically, an organization's talent managers can use this framework as a strategy to develop its leaders, a critical component of talent management.

The elements of L.E.A.D. are

  • learn from theory
  • experience through practice
  • analyze using reflection
  • deepen understanding through mentoring.

This framework helps to shape the leader models, theories, experiences, and relationships that guide all leader development.

Learn from theory

Why is learning from theory so important? We find that individuals almost always have preconceptions about leaders and leadership. Sometimes these ideas are right on, and sometimes they are way off.

One preconception about leadership we frequently encounter is that a leader needs to take care of her people. On the surface, we can probably all agree that leaders should be concerned about the interests of their people. However, if leaders are concerned about the needs of followers to the exclusion of everything else, problems can occur.

We all know of a boss or leader who was concerned only about our well-being. And it might have been great to work for this person, but did he ever really get anything done? Did that leader move the organization forward?

To take care of your people without also taking care of the work at hand does not make someone a good leader. Rather, the appropriate balance of taking care of followers and the task makes a person a good leader. So while the preconception that leaders need to take care of their people is not wrong, per se, it also is not completely right. This is where learning from theory can give a more complete, thorough picture of leaders and leadership.

Learning from theory is primarily learning from the work of others—whether through their study or experience. Many people have systematically studied leaders and leadership, and have great insights to impart.

Experience through practice

No matter how much we read about leadership, we cannot possibly become better leaders until we attempt to put that learning into practice. The experience through practice portion of the L.E.A.D. framework gives developing leaders the opportunity to actually practice leadership. Experiences that challenge leaders are critical for development.

These experiences provide developing leaders an opportunity to attempt the theories they have learned and practice the behaviors of leadership. Additionally, challenging experiences give developing leaders the opportunity to test their own preconceptions, and even misperceptions, around leadership.

Certainly these leadership experiences can come in the form of role plays during training sessions. However, such experiences do not need to be manufactured. Luckily, the workplace abounds with leadership opportunities, even for those without any formal leadership authority.

Analyze using reflection

The reflection portion of the L.E.A.D. framework gives leaders the methods, processes, and frameworks to think critically about the capabilities and capacities that have been and are developing. Reflection is essential for true leader development.

Reflection is "sense making" of leadership experiences in terms of the theory learned and preconceptions held. Without this sense making, theories remain merely abstractions, experiences remain merely events, and preconceptions get no further examination at all. True reflection allows for the evaluation of the experiences, the theories, and the preconceptions about leadership.

Usually in the heat of a challenging leadership experience, we just act—often that is all we have time for. Reflecting on leadership experiences allows developing leaders to take a step back from the action, and to think about the leadership successes and failures that occurred during an experience. For example:

  • What things went well?
  • What could the developing leader have done differently?
  • What theories were useful in the experience?
  • Did leadership preconceptions enhance or harm successful leadership?
  • If I were in a situation like that, how would I act?

While it often is helpful to conduct written reflection, it is important to note that reflection often occurs during the process of mentoring.

Deepen understanding through mentoring

Mentoring—especially in terms of psychosocial support—aids in personal development, particularly for leadership development. This mentoring relationship involves a more experienced person helping a proteges reflect on, make sense of, and evaluate his leadership development. Because the mentoring relationship is protege-centric, it provides a way to individualize leader development.

The mentoring portion of the L.E.A.D. framework helps to reinforce the capacities for sustained growth and development. Particularly after practicing leadership through challenging experiences, developing leaders benefit from the mentoring a more experienced person can offer. Mentors should use questions to guide proteges to deeper understanding of their leadership experiences, how those experiences fit with the theory that they learned, and to assess strengths and areas for improvement.

Using L.E.A.D. for leader development

Figure 2 provides a high-level overview of some of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy's leader development programs and assessment points. It indicates many of the leadership development assessment methods. In general, it should be noted that we have found a strong relationship between the relative cost of a program and its benefit in developing leadership.

With this as a consideration, below are two examples of leader development opportunities that can be implemented using the L.E.A.D. framework. The first is a leadership book club and would be on the low cost, low benefit end of the spectrum. The second is a year-long fellowship program that would be on the high cost, high benefit end of the spectrum.

A book club is a concept that easily could be implemented and focused on leader development using the L.E.A.D. framework. We have had such a learning community at our institution for many years.

Learn from theory. By selecting appropriate books on leadership, you can determine which aspects you'd like to emphasize. Our Leadership Development Center selects and purchases books that are shared with participants in the weeks leading up to a discussion meeting or brown bag event. Typical books have included Drive, Leadership for the Future, and Good to Great. You also could choose to select articles or even videos as well.

Experience through practice. During the course of our discussion event, we often have participants pair up with a colleague to make commitments on how each will adopt and implement some of the ideas learned from the reading. These partner pairs form the basis for later reflection and mentoring.

Analyze using reflection. After a few weeks, the pairs will come together at a mutually convenient time and discuss how their actions faired and what adjustments they intend to make regarding their leadership.

Deepen understanding through mentoring. These reflections are shared through peer mentoring (although it could be through any form of mentoring). It provides the essential feedback and learning necessary to become better leaders.

A longer-term more formal fellowship program might intentionally include all aspects of L.E.A.D. One example of such a program is the Excellence in Government fellows program that is targeted to senior civil servants who are considered high potential for senior executive positions within the government. Although this program was not specifically created with the L.E.A.D. framework in mind, it does contain all of the elements.

Learn from theory. Typically, there is a reading list of articles and books on leadership. Additionally, during the in-residence sessions, there is classroom instruction and discussion about leadership topics. Learning occurs by benchmarking leaders and other organizations.

Experience through practice. Practice is performed primarily in three ways: the fellowship requires a team results project, each participant has the opportunity to practice the just-learned ideas in the natural work setting when they return from an in-residence session, and each participant is detailed to a special assignment (typically two to three months) in another organization or agency.

Analyze using reflection. Each participant receives 360-degree feedback at the beginning of the program and uses it to create a learning action plan. Also, participants are encouraged to develop a personal leadership philosophy and maintain leadership journals.

Deepen understanding with mentoring. Finally, each participant is assigned an executive coach, and they meet at least three times during the fellowship to discuss the 360-degree feedback, the learning action plan, emergent challenges, and so on. Additionally, the cohort of participants provides a rich pool of peer mentors from other agencies to discuss leadership, learn, and improve.

Putting L.E.A.D. into action

Now that we've described the L.E.A.D. framework and have presented a pair of examples, we encourage you to consider ways in which you can implement aspects of this approach. There is an unlimited number of ways to put this into action. To get you started, we've provided a list of methods for each element of the L.E.A.D. framework (see sidebar).

All four components of the framework are important. When you next design or improve a leader development activity, remember to include all four aspects, or as many as you can. Also, remember that:

  • the leader is the object of leader development
  • L.E.A.D. and leader development enable talent management
  • all people can benefit from leader development.

A good strategy

Talent management is about getting the right people in the right jobs doing the right things with the right people at the right time for the right company goals and objectives. L.E.A.D. is a good strategy for how talent managers achieve that goal.

Leader development helps organizations to ensure that employees possess an understanding about leadership from many perspectives. These perspectives should include the theoretical, practical, and reflective. Talent management and leader development enable shifts in leader and employee behaviors that are necessary to adapt to the needs of the ever-changing workplace.

Now that you've been introduced to another theoretical framework for leader development, we'd encourage you to apply it in your own context and reflect on its impact to your organization, talent management, and leader development.