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  • Toby Sinclair

Constraints-Led Leadership Development

Traditional leadership development has three major flaws.

Firstly a focus on a “single” right way to lead. Referred to as “best practice”.

Secondly, a belief that a knowledge gap is what explains the difference between the best and the rest.

Thirdly, learning happens in the classroom. Pressure is minimised to make it a “fun” experience. Variability is removed so the program can be repeated consistently.

The bigger assumption underpinning these flaws is that leadership development is a simple problem. Once leaders learn and adopt the correct leadership approach, performance will improve.

With these flaws, it’s no wonder that many leadership development programs fail.

Only about 33 percent of LOB respondents in our latest study said that they have become much more effective as managers after taking part in development programs.


Becoming a better leader is a complex pursuit. It requires change on many levels all within a highly volatile and uncertain environment.

To make leadership development easier, it’s tempting to reduce complexity. To make it easier for the leader to learn.

This misses the point.

To build better leaders, development approaches must embrace complexity. It is the reality in which leadership is applied.

Thankfully, there are many approaches to learning and development that do embrace complexity.

Skill Acquisition vs Skill Adaptation

The traditional focus of learning and development is skill acquisition.

Learners acquire skills by consuming knowledge and repeating the skill until automatic.

Learners progress through steps that increase in difficulty. From beginner to expert. Their maturity is charted along the way.

“The eight laws of learning are explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition”

John Wooden

This simple view of skill acquisition dominates leadership development.

The evidence is clear. This model of developing leaders does not lead to better outcomes.

Leaders complain that leadership development programs are overly theoretical. They do not prepare leaders to use their skills in the highly volatile and uncertain business environment.

As a result, leaders stick to what they have always done. Even if that is not serving them well either.

To achieve better outcomes the focus needs to shift. From skill acquisition to skill adaptation.

Building Adaptable Leaders

Organisations thrive when they develop adaptable leaders.

Being an expert is not defined by what you have in your head but rather how effectively you relate to the world around you. As performers, we want to be adaptive problem solvers and creative decision-makers, not robots just executing stored programs drilled into us in practice.

Becoming a better leader is a complex pursuit. Leaders lead in dynamic environments that the classroom rarely replicates.

  1. Constraints

  2. Identity

  3. Affordances

  4. Assemblages

  5. Attractors

In particular, playing with constraints has been shown to be an effective way to improve learning outcomes.

Surprisingly, this inspiration comes from a book chapter about motor development in children.

Karl Newell created a constraints triangle model. It outlines three different domains that affect motor movements and how they are displayed by an organism: individual, environmental and task.

Individual (aka organismic) constraints are things you and I bring to the table when we perform a skill. These include physical properties including our height, weight, strength. In the context of leadership development, this can also include organisational status and mental state (how distracted are you)

Environmental constraints are general properties of the world around us like gravity, wind, temperature. The physical layout of the office and modes of communication (zoom, telephone) are other examples.

Task constraints are factors that are highly specific to the skill being performed. They include things like the rules of the game and equipment. In the workplace, the timebox is an example of a constraint.

Playing with these constraints increases the skillfulness of leaders.

Skillful behaviour is intelligent and reactive to changing constraints both in the short and long term, involves an element of improvement, is concerned with the how –whether or action is conducive to achieving our goal.

The quality of football players in Brazil demonstrates the power of constraints.

Many areas of Brazil do not have the top-level training facilities that can be found in other countries. Instead, for many young players (including most famously, Pele) a large proportion of practice occurs via a customary pickup game called ‘pelada’. The term captures the fact that it is typically played in a naked environment absent of proper grass fields, nets, line markers or coaches. It usually played outdoors on very irregular surfaces including dirt streets and sandy beaches. the number of players on each team is often much less than on a typical football side. Players of both sexes and all ages typically play together.

You might think that these constraints lower the performance of the players. It’s the opposite. The constraints imposed on the players improve their performance.

A constraints-led approach works for several reasons.

It encourages self-organisation. The learner must make choices.

It encourages novelty. It encourages learners to come up with new solutions to new problems not just repeating the same old solution.

It helps amplify errors. Increasing awareness of solutions that are not effective.

It takes away the automatic, easy choices that someone would typically make. It narrows the options and builds flexibility.

Fundamentally, it increases situational awareness. Practising a lot of different situations with various constraints improves problem-solving.

Constraints-led leadership development

By leveraging constraints in learning you can build more adaptable leaders.

Day-to-day I help leaders become more-coach-like. Constraints are key in helping leaders become more skillful.

There are several skills a leader must master to become more coach-like.

One of the hardest is becoming a better listener.

It is for these hard to master skills that a constraints-led approach really helps.

Here is an example that introduces a task constraint. The listener cannot speak.

Working in pairs, leaders adopt roles. One person is the “thinker” and the other the “listener”.

The “listener” asks this simple question:

What would you like to think about today?

For 5 minutes, the “listener” now must listen. They cannot respond, share their opinion or ask further questions. They must listen to the “thinker”.

This constraint enables learning in several ways:

  • It reduces the chance the listener will listen with the intent to respond. Instead, encourages listening with the intent to understand.

  • By reducing options, it encourages the listener to focus on listening. To notice things they may not have seen before. It focuses attention.

  • It creates space for silence. This is a situation leaders spend little time experiencing in the working day.

Exploring further, additional constraints might exist.

  • Position in organisation hierarchy (more senior, peer-to-peer) (Individual)

  • Mode of interaction: zoom vs in-person (Environment)

  • Block eyesight so to focus only on the words of the thinker (Task)

The list could go on.

By playing with constraints you develop more adaptive, skillful leaders.

Skillful behaviour is intelligent and reactive to changing constraints both in the short and long term, involves an element of improvement, is concerned with the how –whether or action is conducive to achieving our goal.

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