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9 Virtues Blog

Toward an Experiential Model of Leadership Learning

by N. Karl Haden, Ph.D. and Rob Jenkins


Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Life is like painting a portrait, not doing a sum.” That rather neatly encapsulates our philosophy of leadership learning as expressed in The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders.

Picture for a moment Van Gogh’s painting “The Starry Night.” Think not just of the skill necessary to produce such a work of art, but of how much of himself Van Gogh put into that painting. Can you imagine that haunting canvas as the work of any other artist? Now envision yourself buying a paint-by-numbers set that would allow you to reproduce “The Starry Night” on a piece of black velvet. You simply apply the numbered paints to the corresponding numbered sections of the velvet, and voila! You’re a great artist!


No, of course not. We all understand that you cannot recreate a great painting using a paint-by-numbers set. However much it may look like the original—from a distance, maybe, with the light just right—it is not the original and would never be mistaken for it, even by someone who does not know much about art. However skillful the brushstrokes—however well you “stay within the lines”—the painting is just a copy, and something vital will always be missing.

Much of leadership training is essentially like a paint-by-numbers set. We go to hear a famous leader speak, or we read a book in which that person reveals so-called secrets of great leadership, and then we seek to copy them. We try to make our behavior fit into the lines they have drawn for us. But something is always missing. Authenticity, sincerity, passion—call it what you will. At best, we become a crude and insubstantial imitation of some great person, not a legitimate leader in our own right.

That is not to say we should not seek to emulate great people. There is much we can and should learn from Socrates, Aristotle, and Jesus Christ, from Queen Elizabeth I, George Washington, and Dr. King. Identifying what we admire in others and seeking to incorporate those traits into our own makeup is one of the ways we grow as people—just as Van Gogh learned from the masters who preceded him. But at some point, in order to paint “The Starry Night,” Van Gogh had to become himself. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but if we want to be truly great leaders, copying others can take us only so far.

What we propose, then, in contrast to the formula-based leadership model, is an experiential model based on lifelong learning, reflection, and self-direction.

(This post is an excerpt from The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders: Unlocking Your Leadership Potential. Click here to purchase the book and read more.)

Strategic Planning: 5 Common Challenges

by N. Karl Haden, Ph.D.


Strategic planning is a process, an outcome, and—in its best form—a roadmap used by stakeholders throughout an organization to move the organization toward higher levels of achievement. Strategic planning is also a much maligned endeavor, subject to the usual (and frequent) criticisms: too much time, too much money, and too little action.

Having watched more strategic plans than I can count gather proverbial dust, I’d like to reflect for a moment on our experiences at AAL helping organizations create a strategic plan. There are many reasons such plans fail, but the following five challenges are among the most common:

Lack of leadership. If the leaders of the organization, program, or department do not support the plan, it will fail. This point seems obvious, but far too often leaders talk about the importance of the strategic plan as the planning process gets underway, only to show little interest down the line.

I’m thinking of a senior administrator who appeared exactly three times, for about 15 minutes each time, over a period of one year to express to his strategic planning task force how important their work was to the institution. At virtually every other gathering associated with the process, he sent an emissary to convey the importance of the strategic plan. Do you suppose those task force members viewed the process as extremely important?

How do leaders contribute to the success of the plan? They are present and engaged at the right times with the right people. Most important is their ongoing leadership responsibility: they think strategically. Strategic thinking is guided by vision, mission, and values. Strategic thinking and consequent action aligned with a clear vision of the future are an antidote to the inevitable environmental changes that undermine the details of strategic plans. Strategic thinking is ultimately about staying the course over time, in spite of detours caused by unforeseen circumstances.

Lack of consensus. I have heard more than once that the process of strategic planning is what matters, not the product. Of course, the process itself is vital; yet if an organization is serious about implementing the plan, then an excellent product is imperative.

Strategic planning is about consensus building. Done correctly, the process promotes communication, participation, and collaboration. It provides a structured forum for airing conflicts, dealing with the inevitable political struggles, and negotiating the purpose and meaning of an organization and one’s place in it. While a true consensus about all issues among all stakeholders is unrealistic, engaging everyone through interviews, focus groups, surveys, open forums, and the like is essential if leaders expect them to implement the plan.

Such engagement of others requires time. There are no formulas for the right amount of time. Too much and people lose interest or become mired in details; too little, and they feel unheard. Yet the results of this consensus-building process represent the antithesis of the plan developed by committee or the lone administrator behind closed doors.

Too ambitious. Who can predict what will happen when bright, highly motivated, visionary people are charged to participate in strategic planning? One likely outcome is that from fertile minds will grow a garden of luscious ideas. After all, germinating ideas is a core competency of most professionals.

Tending the garden, however, is an altogether different task. It involves additional human and financial resources, more time and effort, and the willingness to get one’s hands dirty by actually doing something with the idea. Overly ambitious plans tend to outstretch resources and become complicated in the implementation phase. They often have too many goals, including some that are simply unfeasible for the organization in a three-to-five-year window.

The problem of too many goals is exacerbated by implementation planning. I have seen strategies and goals deconstructed into literally hundreds of specific objectives. Even if an organization has full-time staff devoted to strategy and planning, such plans become unwieldy, demoralizing, and ultimately unhelpful as an actionable guide.

Failure to integrate the plan into the culture, operations, and budget. Failures often occur because the strategic plan is divorced from the daily life of an organization. Leaders must model the plan, and that includes talking about it—often. Every public venue and most closed venues are opportunities to stress the vision, mission, and values of the organization.

Integration involves implementing specific, measurable objectives at all levels. Tying decision-making and resource allocation to the plan is vital to making it a part of the institution’s daily life. From the departmental to the institutional level, all defining structures of the organization must be informed by the plan, including budgets, recruitment and development, curricula, and so forth. A fully integrated plan moves everything and everyone (well, most everyone—detractors and cynics reside in all organizations) in the same general direction.

Lack of momentum in the short term. The window of strategic plans continues to get smaller. When strategic planning first emerged as an organizational expectation, a plan spanning 10 years or more was not uncommon. Today, we typically advise our clients to consider a three-to-five-year window.

Even with a shorter time frame, an annual (or sometimes biennial, depending on the environment), systematic assessment of the plan is necessary for course corrections. The planning process itself should create momentum, but as noted above, if the process takes too long, then those involved begin to lose their enthusiasm. Thus the timeline is important; staying with an aggressive timeline sends the message that the planning is a serious endeavor.

Ideally, during the planning process itself, an organization will discover areas for growth and make important changes. To ensure that the strategic plan does not fall stillborn from the printer, institutions should act as quickly as possible. This means identifying those steps that can be taken in the short term and moving forward to implement them. Equally important is making sure that stakeholders know the institution has moved deliberately and decisively to act on the plan. Thus leaders must communicate their actions often and through a variety of media. Momentum in the short term conveys the message that the planning process was a serious undertaking and that the resulting strategic plan is a living document.

Strategic plans need not gather dust on a shelf. They can and should be living documents that guide an organization on a daily basis. In today’s rapidly changing and unpredictable environment, a practicable strategy is more important than ever. Organizations that meet the challenges above have much better outcomes from their strategic plan.

In the end, of the challenges listed above, the first is the greatest: the plan will succeed or fail on the strategic thinking and acting of its leaders.

5 Things That Leadership Is NOT

by Rob Jenkins


Today’s social media is full of pithy quotes and catchy memes about leadership, all trying to capture—in 140 characters or less—exactly what leadership IS. Of course, that can’t be done. Leadership is far too complex a concept to be summed up in a few words, however memorable.

Not that I blame people for trying. We use the tools we have. Many of those quotes and memes are actually thought-provoking and worthwhile, although others can be simplistic, reductive, and even silly.

Blog posts on leadership sites are better, because at least writers can go into some detail about an aspect of leadership that others, perhaps, have not fully considered. Or maybe they can simply offer a different perspective on some point that may serve to clarify or drive it home. All of that is useful, in that it leads us closer to some understanding of what leadership is, not to mention closer to an understanding of ourselves as leaders.

Obviously, here on the 9 Virtues site, we’ve contributed our share to the “what is leadership” literature. In this post, however, I’d like to flip the script and talk about some things that leadership is definitely NOT, in an attempt to help readers better comprehend what it really IS.

It’s not a magical ability. We hear a lot of talk about “born leaders,” as if leadership were some kind of ability—like musical talent or physical dexterity—that some people just have while others don’t. If that were the case, there would be precious few leaders in the world, which would be sad state of affairs for all of us.

Fortunately, that is not the case. In fact, one of the core beliefs Karl and I express in The 9 Virtues is that ANYONE can improve his or her leadership skills and learn to be an effective leader, by internalizing the leadership virtues we discuss in the book.

Leaders, to borrow from Harry Potter, are not like some kind of wizards while everyone else is just a hopeless muggle. Leadership is a real-life magic we all can master.

It’s not a gimmick. For all the good social media does to help people with information reach people who need that information, it has also created a kind of “quick fix” mentality. We’re always encountering posts or tweets that promise to reduce our belly fat, strengthen our relationships, or improve our personal finances if we just do “this one thing.”

The discipline of leadership is not immune to that phenomenon. And yet most of us understand, whether intuitively or from long experience, that there is no “one thing” any of us can do to become a better leader overnight. Another major premise of The 9 Virtues is that improving our leadership by improving ourselves requires a lifetime of hard work and dedication, with progress inexorable but incremental.

Which seques neatly into my next point...

It’s not a quick fix. Sometimes we get the impression that if we just do what the leadership mavens tell us, our organizations and even our own lives will experience dramatic, immediate improvements.

That’s only partly true. By following the leadership advice of wise people, you will become a better person and a better leader, and as a result your organization will almost certainly improve its performance. It just takes time—a lot of time. Years, in many cases.

But that’s no reason to throw up your hands and quit--or refuse to begin. The sooner you start following all that good advice you’re reading, the sooner you will start to see results.

It’s not a license to bully. Another common myth about leadership is that it’s all about being “in charge” and telling other people what to do. In fact, you could make a case that many people seek (and, sadly, attain) leadership positions for that reason alone—so they can be “the boss.”

The truth is, effective leadership really isn’t about telling people what to do. It’s much more about teaching, persuading, and setting an example. People who like to throw their weight around might well elbow their way into a leadership position, but in my experience they’re rarely effective and usually don’t last.

Which once again segues neatly into my last point...

It’s not about you. If you seek a leadership position primarily to achieve your own goals, then you’re in for a rude awakening. Effective leadership really isn’t about you. It’s about the people you lead—helping them to achieve their goals with the understanding that, if they succeed, you also succeed and the entire organization succeeds together.

The great Ken Blanchard, coining a term that has since become immensely popular, referred to this concept as “service leadership.” But it’s really an idea that dates back to the great philosophers of antiquity, like Socrates and Jesus Christ. This is another topic that Karl and I treat at length in our book, because service is at the very heart of virtue.

So there you have it: In addition to all the things you’re trying to DO to become a better leader, I’ve just given you a list of things NOT to do. But the beauty of this approach is that, as you avoid these common pitfalls on the road to leadership, you will find yourself drawing ever closer to becoming the leader you want to be.

Why "Soft" Skills Aren't Really Soft

by Marcia M. Ditmyer, Ph.D.


Today, emerging leaders will likely have a college degree, technical qualifications (making them theoretically competent to perform the tasks required of them), and relevant work experience—but what about the personal attributes that enable leaders to interact effectively and harmoniously with others, or what we sometimes refer to as “soft skills”?

The word “soft,” in this context, introduces a spectrum of connotations. Where skills or competencies are concerned, it is juxtaposed to “hard.” The implication is that hard skills are somehow substantial, while soft skills are somewhat ethereal.  Some might believe that acquiring soft skills is less demanding than the rigor necessary to develop hard skills, basing this assumption on popular notions of the sciences—empirical, measurable, practical—as opposed to to the humanities—intuitive, indefinite, and valued as intrinsically good rather than instrumentally so.

Rather than calling them “soft skills,” and perhaps thereby implying they are less important, I propose that we think of them simply as essential leadership skills. In actuality, it is the technical or “hard skills” that are non-essential. In leadership, one can easily find people who can do the technical things, but communication, motivation, social adeptness, vision—indispensable skills for leaders—are harder to come by. Hard skills are less important as one assumes more responsibility as a leader; but so-called “soft skills” are the sine qua non for effective leadership. They are truly essential.

Today’s emerging leaders must display innovative, cultural, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills in the broadest possible sense. Interpersonal and relationship-building skills help people communicate and collaborate effectively. Unfortunately, such skills are often overlooked and undervalued by today’s students, faculty, and administrators.

What are these leadership skills and why are they so critical?  These essential skills include:

  • Effective communication
  • Acting as a team player
  • Networking
  • Problem solving and critical thinking
  • Professionalism
  • Accepting feedback and applying lessons learned
  • Working collaboratively
  • Managing time
  • Personal confidence
  • Social integrity

These are skills that will help anyone in a wide range of jobs, not just a current or target position.

It’s true that, to get and keep a job, one must be competent in certain technical skills. However, given the same technical skills and level of competence, what is the primary reason one person is chosen over another for promotion and advancement?  While technical skills and competency might get one’s foot in the door, essential leadership skills push that door open wide.  One mistake that should not be overlooked is the assumption these essential skills are easily mastered. The sad fact is that many people never become competent in these interpersonal abilities and never fulfill their potential.

Today’s work environment has evolved to the point where the interpersonal dynamic no longer can be ignored. The acts of listening, presenting ideas, resolving conflict, and fostering an open and honest culture all come down to knowing how to build and maintain relationships with people. It’s those relationships that allow people to participate fully in team projects, show appreciation for others, and enlist support for their projects—that, ultimately, make them effective team members and effective leaders.