Today’s, and especially tomorrow’s, leaders must be flexible, collaborative, able to leverage key knowledge and skills appropriately, and also willing to continue their learning.  They must be able to handle chaos, act in ambiguity and navigate turbulence in a way that brings competitive advantage in the marketplace.  They need to know what is important, do the right thing every time, and believe and think in a way that increases their odds of success.  And of course, our organizations must be able to support these leaders in developing these abilities. 

One of the central questions in this pursuit is how to move developing leaders from “here” to “there” in terms of their mindset, skills and knowledge, and behavior.   This question is at the heart of leadership development and is one that every company should consider carefully as it builds its future and seeks the leadership outcomes that are required in the marketplace.

The connection between thought and behavior is critical. Though it seems logical that behavior follows thought, the direction of this connection often works in the other direction.  In fact, I believe that leaders often must change their behavior first in order to later change their thinking.  In other words, we can’t ask leaders to think their way to acting differently – we have to ask them to act first and then they will start thinking differently.  In this way, leadership development is more about helping a leader see herself acting differently so that a change in her beliefs will follow.

The Know, Do, Believe model focuses on the connection between a leader’s knowledge and skills, their behavior, and the mindsets they employ to shape and make sense of the world.

Figure 1. Know, Do, Believe in Leadership Development

Lasting Change: Know (Increase knowledge & understanding), Do (Develop new skills & behaviors), Believe (Impact core beliefs & values)

What follows is a set of practices to consider when developing what a leader knows, what she does, and what she believes.

Use metaphor to increase impact

Using metaphor has direct impact in changing a leader’s mindset and behavior for increased success.  Duke Corporate Education’s metaphoric learning method takes a leader out of her familiar environment, forcing her to experiment with new behaviors, skills, and perspectives in an unfamiliar but compelling context.  For example, auditors at a public accountancy have become doctors engaged in medical diagnosis, marketers at a software company have become political consultants conducting polling, and executives at a global energy corporation have become tobacco executives facing a congressional sub-committee.

The power of using metaphor in development is found in the ability to reach leaders at a deeper level, with more impact.  Metaphors put leaders in a context and position to think very differently about their work while still allowing them to draw important lessons.  Metaphoric experiences are memorable, change the frame on problems leaders face so they can be seen in a new way, and lead to consideration of new behaviors and mindsets that would have never been possible through a traditional classroom experience.  However, these experiences will just be fun diversions if they are not carefully designed to meet the hoped for business outcomes of the company and learning needs of the participants.  After the experience it is essential that the metaphor and experience be tied back to the business and learning outcomes.  A rigorous debrief, exploring implications, challenges and insights is crucial to this method.

Make it a process rather than a program

Learning and development should be seen and constructed as a process rather than a set of isolated events.

The best organizations for leadership development strive to cultivate and maintain a legacy of teaching and learning throughout the organization, supported by both formal education (programs) and informal learning (team-based learning, on-the-job teaching, and coaching). These organizations see learning and knowledge development as central to their competitive advantage and business strategy.

To remain successful, these companies employ a wide range of learning methods driven by a clear focus on intended business outcomes. Informal learning opportunities are more highly developed in these firms. Most have deliberate routines that bring learning closer to work (e.g. After-Action Reviews, rounds), create opportunities for practice that are oriented to the needs of individuals, and employ techniques such as shadowing as an investment in staff development.

Change the nature of the classroom

Stretching leaders in the classroom is essential to any development strategy and especially if the goal is to make leaders more strategic thinkers and doers.  Changing the traditional lecture to an environment that involves, stretches, and challenges will develop faster and change leaders from passive bystanders in learning to active participants.

Using debates, simulations, group activities and projects, facilitated discussions, and other pedagogical techniques expands the impact of the classroom and increases the challenge for real developmental impact and learning.  We have had firefighters and ballerinas in the classroom to help participants feel and experience leadership in a new way and from a new perspective.  We have used natural occurring problems and challenges leaders face in their everyday work as the teaching material in the classroom in order to create appropriate context and make the learning real and helpful, real-time.  These methods then stretch and engage to a greater extent, demanding participants to think and behave differently.

Of course, using these techniques and those mentioned previously may move learning away from the “safe” environment that is often spoken of, but safety is not in fact the goal, rather it is development.  Changing the nature of the classroom and using different teaching methods will help learning move from being safe to being developmental.

Have leaders develop leaders

Successful senior executives practice the art of “leading by teaching.”  There are real opportunities for synergies between the current generation of top executives and the leaders who will succeed them. While leveraging development opportunities to achieve their own objectives, leaders can also contribute to the development of the next generation by serving as teachers and role models.  In this capacity, top executives provide direction and insights into their strategic intent and help to ensure that the firm’s leadership strategy and developmental programs support the strategic needs of the business, today and tomorrow.

For example, at PepsiCo, senior leaders speak of “the magic of leaders developing leaders.”  According to one executive, the missing adult learning principle is that “people learn best when they get to learn from someone they really want to learn from!  At PepsiCo, the ‘teachers’ our executives want to learn from are our own senior leaders.  They are world class, widely respected and have proven that they can do it HERE!” Senior executives are asked to share their personal perspectives, build participant confidence and skills, while also demonstrating support for the leader’s development and growth.  In this process, senior leaders develop loyalty, motivation, and productivity among the key young leaders they are getting to know.

Leadership by teaching is a different and more lasting way to influence and develop followers – and is always superior to leading by “telling”.


What our leaders know, do, and believe is critical to success in a competitive environment and at the heart of lasting differentiation in the marketplace.  And our ability to develop our leaders’ knowledge, skills, and mindsets more effectively and more quickly will be the difference in helping our organizations navigate the turbulence and deal with the change that is all around us.