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In 2012, U.S. organizations reportedly spent $14 billion on leadership development. But what were they actually investing in? “Leadership development" can be a catch-all phrase, and if you want to actually see results, it's important to define your efforts and your goals.

For example, does leadership development include teaching the ropes to new managers? Does it include the cost of conferences hosted by professional organizations for the purpose of both sales and education? And most importantly, does it include the cost of developing the business strategy and the operating plan?

The answer to the last question is usually "No"—and that's a problem. Executives typically don't put "running the business" in the same genre as training, and that's a shame because training alone rarely produces better leadership. Training simply tells people how to behave, instead of providing the infrastructure to shape better behavior.

The best forms of leadership development—the kind that truly provides a return on investment—weave the work of the organization into a process for collective learning. Here, why leadership development should be more collaborative, and how to do it:

Leadership Development Should Happen Daily

Have you ever noticed that the qualities that make a leader effective are, in reality, common courtesy and common sense? At the risk of sounding too simplistic, things like “generate trust" and “communicate honestly" shouldn't really have to be taught. After all, isn't this what we learned in kindergarten?

There's a better way to teach leadership, and that's through the work we do every day. Why spend thousands to develop a simulated exercise to shape behavior when you can infuse daily work with leadership development?

Think about a sports team after a game: Win or lose, they debrief and review what worked and what didn't. They provide instantaneous feedback during the process of playing the game. They use the game itself as a way of learning how to work better as a team. Yes, they may simulate scenarios to practice skills, but ultimately they candidly and openly review the overall team performance.

The work we do every day provides scenarios that deserve collective reflection to improve and learn together.

Leadership Is Not Just the Sum of Its Parts

An orchestra of world-class musicians doesn't leave the music selection, the tempo and the balance to chance. The best player in the world can sound shrill and off key if not in sync with the rest of the orchestra.

An organization isn't any different. Top talent who are playing along to their own personal playlist may or may not be in sync with what the organization needs to accomplish, and in fact, may actually derail others who are in sync.

You need to align collective behavior with business results. Once basic skills are in place, the organization must continuously scrutinize the infrastructure to ensure that it aligns with organizational strategy and desired results, facilitate dialogue to discover misalignment and be comfortable with making corrections.

Leadership Requires a Plan

It takes commitment and discipline to truly come together and drive business results. And it starts with a collectively defined strategy and operational plan that says, “This is what we are going to do, this is who will do it, this is by when and this is what it will look like when it's complete."

The key to achieving this operational plan? Review it regularly—"carve" it into the board room table, so to speak. And if you need to change the plan, do it collectively and make sure everyone's roles are defined. Unless everyone knows the plan has changed, some may continue down a path that is no longer aligned. Likewise, if people don't understand their responsibilities, complex work may overlap and ambiguous roles could lead to wasted effort.

Perhaps most importantly, build trust. Trust is the single most important element of work: It enables clear communication about what is working and not working.

Your regular business work provides the curriculum for developing the leadership of your organization. Collective planning sets the strategy and vision and, when shared, creates commitment. A disciplined process of reflection and learning leads to sustainable and aligned processes. Along with open and candid communication, this points to the development of true leadership for business impact.

Photo: Creative Commons