CPJ Spotlight: A New Model of Leadership-as-Practice Development for Consulting Psychologist


CPJ Spotlight: A New Model of Leadership-as-Practice Development for Consulting Psychologist ¹

We are living in the midst of a leadership crisis. This crisis stems from a misunderstanding about what leadership is. This misunderstanding can be seen across organizations, from corporations to governments, and is perpetuated, in part, by the Leadership Development (LD) Industry. What we see today is the result of a hyper-focus on individualized leadership, which occurs when leaders are selected for their attractive qualities. The way out of this problem is the understanding that true leadership involves dynamic interpersonal processes and can only be effective by the empowerment of the communities which leaders serve.

The Leadership Development industry has fallen into the trap of individualized leadership through the widespread use of competency-based models. While personal characteristics (such as traits, styles, behaviors, and competencies) are necessary building blocks of leadership, they should not be confused with leadership itself. Leadership, above all, is about achieving results. This necessitates the ability to adapt to the ever-changing social and political context of the day.

In this world, there are “tame” problems and “wicked” problems. Tame problems are ones with a predetermined solution, such as how to build a submarine or how to conduct a liver transplant. Wicked problems are ones with no apparent solutions. They are ill-formulated, always occur in a social context, have complex interdependencies, innumerable causes, involve many stakeholders with different values and agendas, and are often symptoms of other problems (such as poverty or public policy). A current example of such a problem is how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic both economically and socially in a global context.

Individuals selected as leaders for specific “leaderlike” qualities are especially likely to fail when faced with wicked problems. Instead, revealed is a potentially inflexible and lopsided approach to leadership through an over-reliance on the characteristics they were selected for, such as charisma and influence. Herein lies the difficulty with the “great man theory”, to which both popular opinion and the LD industry have fallen prey. Instead of assuming that the sources of leadership reside within those individuals in positions of authority, organizations would be better served by investing in community-based leadership.

An alternative approach to the “competency-based model” of LD is a collective activity to improve and develop the relationships of groups and networks working together. This is also called the development of “social capital”, which attends to the interpersonal and social processes that make an organization work. This approach opposes the development of “human capital” which micro-focuses on the skills and traits thought to be required for individual leadership excellence.

Shifting the focus of LD work to interpersonal and group dynamics work makes leadership a collective process. However, this change is difficult to make because many organizations experience a pervasive and insidious obsession with individual leadership and competency-based models.

Leadership as Practice Development (LaPD) is one way to shift the paradigm in this direction. LaPD is a collection of pedagogical processes to teach leadership. The learning occurs in groups, which allows leadership to develop organically, from the ground up. The consulting psychologist in the LaPD model alternates between facilitating the development of contextual leadership, gathering information about the group, and providing psychoeducation to the group about group dynamics. This puts the consulting psychologist in a position to challenge well-established thinking and behavior patterns. While this is an uncomfortable situation that often leads to resistance, it is essential to challenging an otherwise intractable leadership paradigm.

To support this approach, it is useful to understand the five C’s LaPD and its departure from LD as usual. Leadership as Practice is:

  1. Concurrent—leadership can take place by multiple people at the same time; thus, no one depends on one individual or authority.
  2. Collaborative—anyone can speak for the whole team/organization and advocate a point of view that they believe can contribute to the common good.
  3. Collective—leadership can be practiced by the group, not just by individuals mobilizing action or making decisions on behalf of others.
  4. Co-creative—participants design and co-create their own ways of working and delivering results, and do so by coming up with creative ideas and implementing innovative solutions.
  5. Compassionate—everyone is committed to preserving each other’s dignity, regardless of background, social status, or point of view.

The valued outcomes of LaPD are many. There is the growth of collective capacity to produce direction, alignment, and commitment. There are social outcomes, such as spontaneous collaborations. The impact on the bottom line is both direct and indirect. Increases in performance and productivity resulting from reduced rates of employee turnover and absenteeism are likely to occur following the sense of fair treatment and empowerment felt by employees enjoying these practices. There are elevated levels of trust from people learning to count on each other. More effective decision making occurs as a result of increased satisfaction and productivity in a participative working climate. Increased genuineness resulting from these practices enables employees to bring their whole person to work.

In a divided world full of “wicked problems”, LaPD offers an alternative form of leadership development that offers many benefits. One benefit which should not be ignored is its ability to increase compassion, something that is much needed throughout the world today. LaPD offers a model of leadership development that increases business effectiveness while giving the people the power to lead themselves. If this idea sounds appealing to you, I recommend that you read this article in full.

¹ Salicru, Sebastian (2020). A new model of leadership-as-practice development for consulting psychologists. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 72(2), 79-99.

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