I spent two weeks in California during my winter break. My partner and I visited with family in the first half, and then we booked a cabin and set off for the Pacific Coast. On every hike, we’d see a sign that read “Pack it in, pack it out.” The simplest translation is to take your garbage with you. If you brought it in, clean it up. These signs are posted because the planet has changed and we all need to be more mindful.

As I stored a protein bar wrapper in my pocket, I considered how these diligent practices are non-existent in many places, including my home, Chicago. People aren’t as respectful of their surroundings. Even though the planet has evolved, our habits have not.

You might be wondering what climate change has to do with leadership development. Similar to how our systems are so far behind in addressing climate change, many organizations’ leadership development systems are outdated. The books, assessments, and other tools that gained recognition as the authorities in leadership development over the past 40 years (CliftonStrengths, DiSC, 7 Habits, and The Success Principles, just to name a few) are missing some key foundational pieces that today’s leaders need to thrive. They don’t touch on the basic needs of belonging or psychological safety. They don’t engage our social identities such as race, age, or gender, and they don’t acknowledge human issues like grief or mental and physical wellness.

I won’t be able to solve all of your problems with this one blog, but I would like to share four “unconventional” resources to consider for leadership development and provide you with an approach to help you stay updated in the future.

How Are You Currently Approaching Leadership Development?

First, what does your existing leadership development program or system look like? Are you sending people to offsite classes? Using LinkedIn learning? Pairing high-potential employees with internal mentors? What assessments, books, publications, and other resources do you hold up as a “gold standard” or “north star?” How do you approach your own leadership development?

It should be easy to pinpoint what you like about these tools or why you started using them in the first place. But try to take a step back and evaluate them: dig deeper to identify the values, assumptions, and beliefs they reinforce. What kinds of differences do they measure, and are they all seen as equally valid? Who in the industry developed these assessments, and who were they written for?

If you were to use these questions to analyze popular leadership development tools, you might notice the values that are held up as “right” or “effective” are often speed, meritocracy, decisiveness, high energy, and ruthlessness. This is the dominant leadership standard at work, and assessments in particular have been used against people of color and “others” to keep them out of leadership ranks.

What you won’t find in most leadership development tools are REAL leadership values: the importance of being relatable, equitable, aware, and loyal. Beyond some very abstract and basic qualities like being a “dominant” or “influential” leader, they don’t come close to accounting for (or valuing) the rich diversity of thought that comes with different knowledge, perspectives, and experiences (KPEs). The workplace is more diverse than ever, by age, location, race, gender, and more. We don’t need to “test” employees to see if they can do things the “right” way. We need to find out more about how they relate to others and show up as a leader.

Consider Bringing In Different KPEs

When employees with diverse KPEs can see themselves in your leadership development materials, that’s a signal that they truly belong. You don’t need to overhaul your entire program, but consider bringing in some fresh new voices. Choose a couple of resources that challenge the dominant leadership standard and focus on REAL leadership values, psychological safety, or belonging.

I’ve used these unconventional tools with coaching clients and in the classroom to get leadership discussions “outside the box” while consciously challenging the dominant leadership standard:

1. bell hooks Belonging: A Culture of Place

bell hooks is known for writing about race, feminism, and class in very accessible language. She writes about belonging in terms of belonging within the world, and I love how she talks about a culture of place. She examines the relationships between place and power: for instance, how land has historically been taken from Black farmers.

In Belonging: A Culture of Place, hooks writes,

“Like many of my contemporaries I have yearned to find my place in this world, to have a sense of homecoming, a sense of being wedded to a place. Searching for a place to belong I make a list of what I will need to create firm ground.”

I like to compare her definition of belonging to more “corporate” ones such as Howard J. Ross’s definition from Our Search for BelongingHe says, “When people ask me for the definition of terms, I like to say that if diversity is being invited to the dance and inclusion is actually being allowed to dance, belonging is when you actually have some say about the music.” For one thing, feeling “at home” and “wedded to a place” are much heavier, more permanent terms than the metaphor about the dance. hooks’ also brings an intersectional perspective to this concept as in the book, exploring how race, class, and gender, affect belonging both in general and within society.

Back to Ross’s metaphor which makes a lot of assumptions: it assumes the group in question is full of able-bodied people who like to dance. Did anyone ever ask if a dance was the best idea in the first place? Personally, I like Ross’ Belonging book but the point here is that we need to also look at different perspectives to start a deeper, and fresher, conversation.

2. The Bozoma Saint John case

Bozoma Saint John is not only the Global Chief Marketing Officer at Netflix, but she also had a hand in helping Beyoncé skyrocket her solo career and saving Uber’s reputation. HBR’s case study on her career shows how she navigated situations where there were no rules or guidelines, like being the first Black woman to present on the Apple stage. This multimedia tool chronicles important moments through a series of short videos interspersed with images and a bit of text, and it includes several discussion questions.

Saint John shares deeply relatable perspectives, admitting that “I have never received a good review at work,” alongside stories about creating big opportunities out of nothing but explosive self-confidence. Her case gets deep into “diversity of thought” and how different backgrounds and KPEs produce it. She also speaks candidly about life challenges and setbacks, like her husband suddenly dying. My students at UIC Business really liked this case because Saint John is so authentic throughout.

3. adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy

I’ve heard so many executives say a team member needs coaching because they “aren’t strategic.” But adrienne maree brown’s work challenges traditional notions of what strategy looks like. It shows that the world is in a constant state of change and we need to learn how to be comfortable with that, though there are patterns we can expect and core principles for navigating the chaos.

This one is another student favorite. I taught it dually with the VUCA complexity concepts (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). What makes this a valuable tool is the cross-disciplinary approach with a variety of examples from nature, art (particularly science fiction), history, and more. Many business leaders may not want to give adrienne maree brown a chance as her work can be written off as “too radical,” but a lot of the concepts in this book are things I learned in other places presented in more accessible language.

4. Change Coaches Team Effectiveness Assessment

Yes, the last tool is one that my team is in the process of developing. I saw a need for this assessment because the others I have used (Hogan 360, DiSC, and EQ-i) are steeped in the dominant leadership standard. Also, our clients wanted more. Our Change Coaches assessments tools will be the only ones on the market that measure the core of how you lead people who are different from you in terms of REAL leadership, psychological safety, and belonging.

The Team Effectiveness Assessment will help you identify top priorities and the biggest challenges for culture change. Through our coaching sessions, we’ll also provide actionable steps you can take to create this. The assessment will be available to take online around April 1, so look out for an announcement! If you would like priority access and be notified as soon as it’s released, you can add your name to this list.

Small Adjustments for Sustainable Change

Today’s most progressive leaders know that our most basic needs can’t be taken for granted in the workplace. Psychological safety and belonging must be actively created, and we need the language and social skills to talk about human issues that might affect our work performance. Like the planet, the workplace has changed, but most of us are still relying on old standards. We’re trying to address new problems with outdated solutions.

As adrienne maree brown suggests, a big change initiative with a bold, sweeping plan is not the right approach for this complex, chaotic environment. Remember to make small adjustments for sustainable change. Introducing one new tool or taking one idea from a book will go a long way.

Have you been reflecting on what kinds of change you’d like to make in your leadership practice or your organization this year? Use those reflections, feedback from your team, and the questions from the beginning of the article to determine what direction you should take with new leadership development tools.

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