“They can teach you everything you need to know theoretically and tactically in the pool – but if that is the only time you practice then you will only know how to execute those skills in the pool. But, I warn you – it’s the elements; the weather, the currents, the unpredictability of the open water that will sink the boat. We will ensure you are prepared to sail the open waters.”

This was the messaging on a sales brochure for a sailing course I picked up a couple of years ago. Looking at it now, I can’t help but see this as an analogy for the often mistaken approach to leadership training.

Most leadership training programs focus on the theoretical and tactical elements of leading such as developing specific leadership attributes, increasing awareness of how a leader should behave, interact and communicate – all foundational aspects of leading. Yet how often do people return from a leadership training program ready to do everything they practiced in the classroom only to apply those same strategies back in their work environment without success. It’s not because the tools weren’t good enough, it’s because the training didn’t prepare the leaders to use those tools in the context of the complex social “elements” of leadership. Much like the physical elements of the open waters make sailing difficult; the social elements of leading in the “real” world are the hard parts of leading.

The social element of leadership focuses on the perceptions of the leader’s abilities and motivations by a leader’s social network. It is that social network that determines how successful the leader will be based on their choices to follow or not follow, to minimally comply or fully commit, to push things forward or to drag things down.

To effectively train leaders, we must help them address and decrease any gaps between their actual and perceived leadership abilities and motivations. To do this means we start by looking at the fundamentals of human interaction, specifically that people are always decoding our words and actions through their filters of previous experiences with us, what they’ve heard about us, how we remind them of other people in their lives, etc. That information is then simplified and encoded, categorized and stored into a neat little information packages called our reputation for easy retrieval when choices involving us need to be made by those in our social network. This fact is true for all interactions, but is especially relevant when considering leadership. A leader’s social network responds to their reputation, make decisions based on that reputation and a leader’s perceived impact is driven by their reputation – it’s the reputation that can sink the leader!

It is here that the social element of leadership makes leading so difficult. Theoretically, we can become better leaders and we can execute on all of the learned leadership attributes perfectly but that does not mean that the impact of our actions will be socially processed by those around us the way we hope. This is especially true if that impact opposes our social networks previously held reputation of us. The leader that fails to grasp the social context often end up feeling frustrated, feeling like they’re spinning their wheels and ultimately with stalled careers due to limited successes.

Though people cannot directly control their social or ‘external’ reputation, by understanding how it is built and what influences it, a leader can then adjust their approach and expectations to leadership growth. This is essential as a good reputation can open the doors to new opportunities, new networks, and the sharing of new ideas that can transform and inspire the way people think and act.

It was this realization that led our organization to develop a program called “Leadership Reputation” focused on helping leaders take actions to influence the perception-reputation gaps that keep them from effectively applying, growing their strengths and skills and ultimately their leadership capacity.

Our goal is to help leaders learn to lead in the context of the “open water” elements and we realize that can’t be learned in the pool!