Developing Leaders: Lessons from One of the Most Impressive Behavior Change Efforts Ever

What can a program to feed starving children possibly teach us about “leadership development?”

In 1990, Jerry Sternin of Save the Children arrived in Vietnam to tackle the country’s severe problem with childhood malnutrition. He was a man with meager resources, a tiny staff, no Big Plan, and few theories.  He got a chilly reception by the Vietnamese government.  He was told he had six months to make a difference.

Six months later, 65% of the children in the first village Sternin visited were better nourished — and stayed that way.   Just a couple years later, his program had spread and improved the lives of 2.2 million Vietnamese children in 265 villages. His model was emulated by others around the world struggling to make a dent in this heart-wrenching problem.

Sternin’s massive behavior change success offers invaluable lessons on how to “move” human beings in better, more productive directions.  Which is what leadership is all about.   It is also what leadership development is all about:  changing the behaviors of your leaders in the hope they’ll  turn around and positively impact team member behaviors through that “trickle-down” magic.

Here are four key lessons from Sternin’s success in Vietnam:

(1) THEORY IS OK, BUT CREATING NEW HABITS RULES

Rather than lecturing Vietnamese mothers or imposing solutions developed in a distant think tank, Sternin landed in his first village with genuine curiosity.    Were there thriving children here, even in the midst of great poverty?

It turns out that certain mothers were defying local feeding conventions.  Instead of exclusively giving their children soft, pure foods like high quality rice, they gathered “low class” foods like sweet potato greens and shellfish from local rice paddies to mix into the rice.  Their children thrived.

According to authors Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Sternin could have then done what many leadership development programs do:  “Gather round, everyone:  I’ve studied your problem and now I have the answer!  Here are Sternin’s 5 rules for Fighting Malnutrition.”   In other words:  the Lecture.  

Instead, he wisely realized that knowledge doesn’t change behavior.  “We have all encountered crazy shrinks and obese doctors and divorced marriage counselors.”   Telling mothers about nutrition wouldn’t shift their approaches to feeding their kids.  “They’d have to practice it.”   

Sternin set up a grassroots program where 10 families at a time met daily in a hut to prepare food over a period of several weeks.  They were required to bring gathered shrimp, crabs, and sweet potato greens.  There was strong social pressure to go along.  Moms compared notes daily on changes in their children and how to incorporate the new foods more easily.   As Sternin put it, his Vietnamese moms “acted their way into a new way of thinking.

(2) APPEAL TO THE LEARNER’S ELEPHANT, AS WELL AS HIS OR HER RIDER

In Switch, the Heaths remind us that behavior change is hard in part because of an incessant tug-of-war between our TWO (yes, two) brains. The Heaths refer to them as The Rider and The Elephant.  

The Rider is our rational, logical mind.  It resides largely in the brain terrain most recently gifted to humans:  our cerebral cortex.   The Rider loves a good theory or idea.  

The Elephant, on the other hand, is our emotional or habitual mind.   Many researchers and psychologists currently refer to the Elephant as the “mind-body” because this set of guidance mechanisms resides throughout our bodies, as well as in older parts of our brain such as the limbic system.   The Elephant is conservative in its efforts to help us, and prefers to run with what’s worked in the past, despite any alluring intellectual arguments put forth by our Riders.

As the Heaths put it, appealing to the “Rider” with great ideas and concepts (by themselves) is often a losing battle.  Why? 

“Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.   Most of us are all too familiar with situations in which our Elephant overpowers our Rider.  You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever slept in, overeaten, dialed up your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym…and so on.”   

Or tried to change how you develop, motivate, and retain your employees.   (Good thing no one is keeping score!)  Sternin’s food preparation groups provided a perfect opportunity to enlist the villager’s Elephants in long-lasting habit changes.

(3)  OVERCOME THE “NOT INVENTED HERE” SYNDROME WHERE POSSIBLE   

Leadership programs often import a boatload of theories from far-off academic institutions.   There’s nothing wrong with sharing a certain amount of such theory; it wins over our Riders.  But it is imperative to avoid overdoing “concepts” – and to bring theory down to earth by relating it to OUR lives in THIS organization with OUR unique challenges.  

If Sternin had focused on addressing malnutrition using classic academic or think tank notions (i.e. reduce poverty, improve water quality, and up farm productivity), he would have missed a far easier, cheaper almost magical solution sitting right under his nose:  gathering local flora & fauna which provided missing protein and vitamins. 

Infuse your leadership programs with a hefty dose of best practices sharing among participants — and don’t assume all winning ideas can be found at the top of your organization.

(4)  MEASURE, MEASURE, THEN MEASURE AGAIN

When Sternin first got to a village, he enlisted local parents to go out and weigh all children, then report back.  Inevitably each village had youngsters who were defying the odds and thriving, despite their families’  having no more wealth, power, or resources than others.   This proved to the parents that local children COULD be coaxed out of precarious malnutrition without miracles.  And gave them a way to measure their progress once they started feeding their children a more nutrient-dense, foraged diet.

THREE TAKEAWAYS FOR SHAPING A STRONGER LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM

1-  Most of your leadership program should happen outside the classroom, not inside it.   Seminars and workshops enlist our Riders with exciting ideas, but the resulting enthusiasm lasts about 10 minutes if not reinforced multiple times over weeks or months by Elephant-oriented practice assignments and follow up discussions.  Much learning theory suggests significant, complex behavior change doesn’t happen in less than 4-6 months, the time needed for new neural pathways to be laid down.  

If your leadership program simply involves 3 or 5 or 10 wall-to-wall days in a row at an offsite location, know that all the in-class role play exercises in the world can’t make up for lack of real-world practice opportunities.   The best programs offer a looping series of idea-sharing sessions, field practice opportunities, and follow-up “how-did-it-go?” discussions.

2-  Create measurement mechanisms to boost motivation to change – and enable success measurement.  Ideally, measure where a leader stands at the beginning and end of your leadership program.  I’ve found 360 feedback works well for this, although I’ve seen other measurement mechanisms work, too.  

But wait,” you say, “our leadership program lasts two weeks.  Can we really do two rounds of 360 just a month apart that will show changes?!  No.  Which is exactly the point of Takeaway #1, above.  Real, visible, measurable leadership change generally only occurs over a series of months, not days.

3- Like Sternin, create social pressures for a group of program participants to practice and advance together.  I generally ask my leadership program participants to select and articulate a personalized action goal at the end of each class, then report back to the group on how it went at the next session.   I also prompt participants’ bosses to ask them critical progress/ learning questions at key points during the program.  Where possible, I enlist an organization’s most respected leaders to serve on my program’s faculty, bringing yet another element to our social “surround strategy” which helps individuals change.

It is easy to remain attached to classically-shaped leadership programs.  I urge organizations to build or buy game-changing, convention-busting programs based on time-tested approaches to behavior change.  And to appeal to our Elephants — not just our Riders.

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Kirstin Lynde has a passion for helping people become the kind of leaders for whom others love to work: namely, leaders who have a knack for inspiring and facilitating great performance, while making work enjoyable along the way. Leaders who approach their teams with trust, respect, and an open mind. Contrary to popular belief, the skills to become this kind of leader CAN be cultivated. Kirstin has worked to build this brand of winning leadership at Digitas, Forrester Research, Ropes & Gray, Randstad, and many other organizations.

Kirstin Lynde

Kirstin Lynde has a passion for helping people become the kind of leaders for whom others love to work: namely, leaders who have a knack for inspiring and facilitating great performance, while making work enjoyable along the way. Leaders who approach their teams with trust, respect, and an open mind. Contrary to popular belief, the skills to become this kind of leader CAN be cultivated. Kirstin has worked to build this brand of winning leadership at Digitas, Forrester Research, Ropes & Gray, Randstad, and many other organizations.

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