I have always been passionate about investing time and resources in leadership development within my own companies realizing that I first must constantly improve myself before leading others in their development process. I have also realized over the years that existing and emerging leaders within any type of organization must be given ownership over their development process. Workshops and leadership offsite events are great. I have hired consultants and I have been the consultant. I have given leadership presentations and mentored other leaders. But that isn't where leadership programs should end. It must be an ongoing process and therefore the leader must guide themselves through this journey.

The Current Situation: Using the Same Methods

It also important to understand that the environment has changed. It is more complex, volatile, and unpredictable. The skills needed for leadership have also changed and more complex and adaptive thinking abilities are needed. But the methods being used to develop leaders have not changed much. The majority of managers are developed from on-the-job experiences, training, and coaching or mentoring; while these are all still important, leaders are no longer developing fast enough or in the right ways to match the new environment.

The Challenge Ahead: Developing the Right Mindset

This is no longer just a leadership challenge (what good leadership looks like); it is a developmental challenge (the process of how to grow "bigger" minds). Many managers have become experts on the "what" of leadership, but novices in the "how" of their own development and the development of their teams. This is where many programs and books fall short. Many companies simply don't prioritize this effort or make the minimal investment of time and resources. Or they are investing in the wrong strategy.

The Mindset Challenge: Proper Cognitive Development

The challenge is that existing leadership development strategies usually focus primarily on horizontal development: learning and developing skills and traits for "good" leadership. Practicing and improving things like good communication and emotional intelligence are imperative. But what is lacking is a focus on vertical development: evolving the way a leader thinks and views the environment around them. Simply focusing on horizontal development is like continually adding new software to an outdated computer. The returns are diminishing. When we upgrade to a new computer while also adding better software, we experience both horizontal and vertical development.

In combat or in business, leaders with a higher level of cognitive development perform better in complex situations. They analyze data in a more sophisticated manner and therefore have the ability to make better decisions more quickly.

So how does one develop the adaptive leader's mindset? By using this three-step process.

1. Awaken: The leader becomes aware that there is different way of making sense of the world around them and that approaching challenges in new ways is possible.

2. Unlearn: Old assumptions are analyzed and challenged. New assumptions are tested and experimented with as new possibilities for one's day-to-day work and life.

3. Advance: After practice and effort, previous habits and ways of thinking diminish while new leadership logic starts to take hold.

Cognitive development can be measured and elevated not only at the individual level but also across teams. Organizations seeking to create lasting change must create a leadership culture while also developing their individual leaders. This requires several phases starting with elevating the senior leadership culture before targeting middle management. Personal vertical development impacts individuals while vertical culture development impacts entire organizations.

The core challenge for organizations that wish to accelerate the vertical development of their leaders and cultures will be the creation of processes and experiences that embed these principles in the workplace. Experiences must be designed to instill the appropriate beliefs that drive the team to take action and deliver results.

Published on: Nov 21, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.