Growing Leaders: Cultivation or Certification?

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How are you growing as a leader?  In my study and application of leadership over the past two decades I find that there are two approaches: technical-based and character-based. The technical approach involves skills, tools, frameworks, and templates in a whole host of important leadership settings. In many ways these might be summed up as “what a leader does.”

In our present culture, a heavy emphasis is placed on the technical elements. This is evidenced in the variety of leadership courses and certifications available in leadership related topics. One can become a certified planner, a certified coach, a certified mediator, a certified manager, etc. One can complete certifications in a whole host of weekend, week-long, or longer courses in particular technical leadership topics like time management, public speaking, project management, motivating employees, communication techniques, etc. Then these certifications can all be added to one’s LinkedIn profile and a big list of qualifications is built.

All of these certifications are helpful and good, but sometimes they miss the mark. They can foster a sense that growing in leadership is simply an accumulation of certification in the ability to do very specific things. Certainly the ability to do specific things is important, but deep and lasting leadership goes well beyond certifications.

Leadership is fundamentally about people, and people are living, breathing, dynamic beings. Therefore truly deep and lasting leadership growth requires a cultivation of character. The character-based approach to leadership involves something very personal, something we might describe as “who a leader is.” It’s harder to confine these aspects using technical certifications because it transcends specific activities and extends to a leader’s make up, their character, their virtues or lack of virtue, their thinking, and their worldview. These elements require cultivation not certification.

As leaders we can learn from gardeners. In order for a plant to flourish, one can’t just apply a weekend treatment. It requires daily ongoing care: watering, fertilizing, pruning, weeding, cultivation. The cultivation of leadership character involves teaching and forming virtues within leaders that give them the capacity to be flexible and adaptable to in a variety of situations. A leader can’t simply take a weekend course and be a certified in character.

As an illustration, the technical ability to use Gantt charts for project management is a useful leadership tool in specific situations, but developing the virtue of prudence – good and wise decision making – will be applicable in all leadership situations. The technical ability to use the FranklinCovey Personal Planning system as a time management tool will be very helpful for leaders, but developing the virtue of temperance and self-discipline will give the leader more and more capacity to align their time and priorities to the truly most important things. Cultivating character and specific virtues equips leaders to step into dynamic circumstances and lead with consistency and confidence.

I believe that successful leaders develop both the technical and character-based aspects of their leadership. But while many leaders spend significant amounts of time and money in technical certifications, they often make no investment in cultivation of character. To see a real sustained boost in your growth as a leader, make investments in the cultivation of virtue and character.

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