It’s time for a fresh look at personal development in management. Bookshelves at airports sag under the weight of titles promising recipes for self-actualisation and career achievement, and vast amounts of money are spent on training and development aimed at making you more effective. Unfortunately, none of it has been able to close in on exactly what personal development is. Has the concept become entangled in pseudo-science and fads? I think so.
Pause what you’re doing, and let’s get back to some basics.
Having worked for many years now in a business school alongside experienced, mid-career managers who have invested time and money in their development, I conclude that real personal development is underpinned by three core principles:
Personal development is about the pattern, not the properties, of growth.
Every marketer knows that if you dismantle a Ferrari engine, there is no single component that is its speed. Nor, for that matter, will you be able to hold in your hand the bit that is its reputation. This is because these features aren’t the properties of parts, but of a mechanical relationship between parts, or a psychological relationship between people. Personal development is the same; it is about the in-between. It is fundamentally and entirely context-dependent.
To understand this is to be freed from an endless search for personal learning, growth and change as if these were simply the sum total of your traits, abilities or individual preferences.
Self-awareness is key but requires curiosity and humility.
What does a really transformational manager look like? Certainly, they have ambition, skill and talent, but they also have wisdom, a sense of proportion and a humility that comes – usually – from hard lessons in life. Such inspirational people are great storytellers, because the best method for accessing and making sense of our personal development is via narrative.
Yet most of us are too busy, wound up in our routines and reliant on long-established habits to see the pattern in our own tales. We can describe, but we’re rarely called on to reflect, question basic assumptions or entertain uncertainty and not-knowing as strengths rather than weaknesses. However, if you are going to achieve amazing things, the first thing you have to get over is… yourself. For that, you need an open mind and limitless curiosity about how things fit together.
So, the nature of personal development is relational, and awareness of where you are in your own web of relations is the first step. The third foundational principle is connectedness.
My personal growth is linked to the wellbeing of others.
In southern Africa, the word "ubuntu" carries the idea that a person is a person through other people. This means more than our humanity being something we get from others: it is an obligation to recognise that if you are diminished, so am I.
In 2008, the globalised economies woke up to the "morning after" that followed decades of deregulated and hedonistic corporate profiteering. This shock to the system has put the concept of management in a difficult position, because it suggests that hubris led to a disastrous lack of systemic understanding. Any definition of personal development that reinforces such management practice is destructive and unsustainable. There are a great many problems in the world to deal with, but this is not a zero-sum game.