Stop “Leader-splaining”

I’ve come to a realisation this week:  I think most Leadership Development is actually just “mansplaining” by another name.  Maybe it needs its own term: “leader-splaining”? 

A leading American voice on children’s education, Teacher Tom, posted a blog recently that brought me up short.  His key question was: 

“How does mansplaining differ from much of what passes for education?” 

He goes on to compare the two concepts:

“As a child in school, you are surrounded by adults who hold power over you, and who persist in lecturing on topics of their own choosing. You’ve not asked them for this information. It is being foisted upon you no matter how tedious or irrelevant you find it.”

Reading this has made me realise that I feel the same way about most Leadership Development programmes. In fact, about most of what I’ve been asked to design, develop and deliver throughout my career. 

‘Splain began to have sarcastic or condescending connotations in the late ‘80s and into the 90’s. But it didn’t really enter into common usage until after Rebecca Solsnit’s 2008 essay Men Explain Things to Me. She inspired its connection to the issue of men explaining things to women as if they didn’t know anything on the topic.  Since then it has become a more widely used affix, with variations such as whitesplaining, gaysplaining and journosplaining. There’s definitely room for the term “leader-splaining”, but is it warranted?

Lets start by taking a look at typical leadership development efforts in organisations, and making some (perhaps sweeping) generalisations.  In my experience, leadership development is often:

  • Based on “best practice”.  Companies generally design leadership programs based on competency frameworks. These are either built in-house, based on how leadership in their organisation works. Or they are bought in, based on data about the best leaders out there. 
  • Offered to groups of individuals within the organisation.  The audience for a leadership program is often based on rank or progress through the organisation. They’re called exciting things like the “Senior Manager Development Centre” or “Director Induction Program”. Sometimes, audience might be based on an assessment of potential, e.g. the “High Potential development scheme”.
  • Focused on how leadership is “done”.  Nick Petrie, in his work with CCL, observes that “traditionally, leadership programs have focused mainly on horizontal development”.  They focus on outer capabilities – they’re concerned about what you know, and aim to ‘give’ more knowledge, skills and competencies. 
  • Approved by, and maybe even delivered by, the existing leadership team. The existing leaders of the organisation are the decision makers for what leadership development is offered, when and to whom.  As acknowledged voices of  wisdom, they are often also asked to communicate key messages and support the next generation.

But, is it fair to call these types of programs “leader-splaining”?  Kim Goodwin’s viral flowchart offers some simple principles to help us assess the likelihood:

  • Do they want the explanation?  Do leaders on the track for promotion want to be told how to lead? Or to be told how to have a performance conversation, manage a budget or handle a client?  Maybe.  Maybe these are things that will be useful to them at a certain moment in their career.  But is it likely to be at the exact moment that the leadership program is “given” to them?  Maybe not.
  • Are you making bad assumptions about competence?  In this case, perhaps the better question is “are you even considering competence?”.  When programs are delivered to large cohorts based on rank, they are rarely aligned to the competencies of each, or any, individual. More often, they are a reward for progress to a certain level or an incentive to stay with the organisation.
  • How does bias affect your interpretation of the above?  Probably quite heavily.  We know that the leadership teams of most organisations are heavily biased, even just on two measures of diversity.  The Hampton-Alexander Review reveals the inherent male bias, and the Colour of Power site is a startling reminder of how far we have to go to achieve racial diversity.  So, if the leadership of an organisation approves and delivers a leadership program, its probably safe to say there’s some bias.     

Using this simple guide, my conclusion is that “leader-splaining” is, sadly, real.

But is it a problem?  Perhaps not at certain points in your career.  Perhaps it is invaluable when you first face that tricky performance conversation. After all, it is useful to learn a technique that helps you, and the recipient, get the best outcome. 

But as leaders progress, what value are these programmes adding?  As Nick Petrie asks:  “if your leaders already know what great leaders do and still can’t do it, what value is there in telling them again?”

In the Becoming Journey we’re doing it differently.  We’re focused on “vertical development”, the inner capabilities of who the leader is and how they think.  We’re walking alongside them helping them to discover who they are, not telling them what they need to know or do. We’re not assuming they’re lacking in knowledge or competence we’re assuming they are stuck or off-track and supporting them as they unstick.  We’re uncovering the leader within.

Maybe it is time we stopped “leader-splaining” and started doing things differently.

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