Mastering the Art of Throwing Darts

Learning how to hit a moving target may be the most vital aspect of your mid-career leadership training by ROBERT E. MILLWARD

Imagine you have entered a dart tournament to determine who could score the most bull’s eyes on a standard target. For weeks leading up to the contest you practice daily with a set of the finest professional darts ever made. You also attend practice sessions at the Dart Throwing Lab, where a dart professional helps you refine your dart-throwing skills. Through daily practice and expert coaching, you refine your ability to throw darts to the point you consistently hit the bull’s eye 95 out of every 100 throws.


On the day of the big tournament, you arrive with your professional set of darts, confident that you will have a good chance of winning. As you approach the throwing line you are shocked to learn that you must hit the bull’s eye on three different targets that are spaced at different distances from the throwing line. To make matters worse, the targets are continually moving along a mechanized track. Dismayed, you explain to the official that your past training has not prepared you to hit a moving target.

"Too bad," replies the official. "Stationary targets were used several years ago, but moving targets are more representative of real-life situations."

"But it’s not fair," you retort, "to ask me to hit moving targets since all my training was with a stationary target."

"You’ll just have to do the best you can," replies the official.

Reluctantly you aim for one of the moving targets. Thud. The dart lands two feet to the right of the target. The second and third darts also land to the right of the target. The fourth and final dart hits the outside ring. Disgusted and depressed, you watch as other contestants consistently hit the bull’s eye. Unfortunately you were a victim of never learning and practicing a set of behaviors essential for hitting a moving target.

Teaching Leadership
This scenario illustrates several principles that relate to designing, implementing and assessing a leadership program.

First, if you believe that leadership skills can be taught, then your beliefs will shape the content of the program. A beginning dart thrower, a beginning golfer or a beginning baseball player develops skills by playing the game, by receiving feedback from his or her coach and fellow players and by perfecting specific skills. Some people will become more proficient than others because of the training, because they practice longer, because the sport motivates them or because of their innate abilities.

Similarly, leadership skills can be taught if the individuals are coached, if they have the opportunity to practice various skills, if they get feedback, and if they possess some innate abilities related to leadership.

What skills are necessary for leadership development? Many books on leadership development list such skills as team building, oral communication, written communication, problem solving, decision making, the ability to analyze events and sensitivity to issues affecting the organization. Once these skills are learned, they should enable you to hit a moving target.

Too often, though, universities offer narrowly focused leadership programs using a series of unrelated courses. The dart thrower might take courses in The History of Dart Throwing, Champion Dart Throwers of the 20th Century or How To Make Championship Darts, which would provide some background knowledge about throwing darts but would do little to improve one’s skill in throwing darts. Such courses often require assigned readings and an end-of-term written paper. At best, the courses may enhance written communication skills but do little to promote accurate dart-throwing skills.

Similarly, a two-day leadership workshop is not likely to have a significant impact on promoting leadership skills since there is little follow-up help once the participant reenters the real world of moving targets. It doesn’t matter how much training you have and it doesn’t matter if you have a degree or a leadership certificate if, in the final assessment, you can’t score consecutive bull’s eyes on a moving target.

Leadership can be learned. But leadership is a process, not a position. The process requires the leader to influence individuals to want to move toward specific goals. Getting a group "to want" to move is tough.

According to trait theory, a leader must demonstrate drive, motivation, cognitive ability, persistence, initiative, insight and socialability to promote goal achievement. And according to leadership experts Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge, these traits can be learned. The problem facing most leadership programs is designing courses to help student develop and enhance these leadership traits.

In many leadership programs, the final assessment is often a letter grade, which is a narrow and often misleading measure of administrative talent. Getting an A may help you hit a stationary target, but in the real world of school administration, most targets not only move but change shape while speeding away from the dart thrower. So what components should you look for in a leadership program?

The Importance of Beliefs
If there is one concept that recurs again and again in journals and books about leadership, it is the word belief. Leaders have a strong set of beliefs, they can articulate these beliefs and, most important, they implement their beliefs.

So one of the first attributes to look for in a leadership program is whether a belief structure provides a foundation for the program. Do the instructors teaching leadership courses really believe that leadership skills can be taught? Do they believe that leadership skills can be learned? Does the leadership faculty believe that one who is perceived as an average administrator, an average student or an average teacher can become a leader? Should the person who is directing the leadership program be a leader?

If you answered yes to these questions, you probably would agree with one of the major premises of the book, Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge. Authors Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus found that business and industrial leaders were "masters at selecting, synthesizing and articulating an appropriate vision." Likewise, Bernard Bass in Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations, says leaders structure and articulate problems and beliefs that help the team to comprehend the problem and tasks. The program’s vision should help you zero in on the target.

If, however, the vision is fuzzy, then what appears as an apple to the superintendent might be seen as an orange to the building principal, and by the time it gets to the faculty, it’s a lemon. Effective leadership programs have a clearly defined teaching team that provides direction for both the students and the program.

In Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge, inspiring a shared vision is a major leadership construct. In their chapter on "Envisioning the Future," they describe examples of leaders whose visions go beyond the ordinary. Often, in fact, the leader’s vision goes beyond what others thought possible.

Over the years, these authors interviewed hundreds of leaders throughout the world and one trait that characterized most leaders was the ability to envision products, processes or events that no one else had proposed. These leaders, however, go beyond just dreaming; they articulate and implement the dream. Everyone dreams of what could be, but leaders turn dreams into realities.

Effective leadership programs have a clearly defined set of experiences that promote skill development across a wide range of skills. Effective leadership programs have a packaged program of courses or seminars that are linked together by a set of beliefs as well as the expectation for students to exhibit high standards of performance. Effective leadership programs produce a positive change in one’s ability to lead.

To be effective, however, the leadership program must continually articulate and implement specific beliefs. For example, our leadership program believes in the principles of cognitive psychology; therefore, the course components must promote enhanced leadership skills through direct application. A simple check on whether students understand the program’s believes is through summative and formative evaluations.

Targeting Leadership Skills
What leadership skills should students develop as a result of their program? The Center for Creative Leadership’s program, Developing Teacher Leadership, promotes skills such as decision making, conflict management, problem solving and planning. Development Dimension International’s leadership modules focus on building day-to-day leadership skills that can be used to effectively lead intact work groups, project teams, task forces or cross-functional teams.

A leadership training program might focus on communication skills, problem-analysis skills or skills that promote innovative solutions to various problems. If the leadership program is developed by a faculty team across disciplines and if this team has a consistent set of beliefs about how leadership skills are enhanced, then a good chance exists that the program will have a positive impact on developing leadership skills among the participants.

Teaching leadership skills, however, is much easier than learning leadership skills. Colleges and universities are very good at helping students acquire knowledge about leaders and leadership skills, yet they usually fall short when it comes to application. For example, an assigned paper on leadership might improve a student’s writing style as well as his or her knowledge of leadership attributes, yet it will probably have little effect on enhancing the student’s actual leadership skills.

A book about leadership theory might help you understand the process of leadership, but just reading the book may have little impact on leadership performance. Therefore, students are required to have faculty and staff assess their leadership performance when they enter the program. This baseline data provides a starting point from which future leadership skills can be developed. The data helps students connect the theory with their own administrative behavior.

David Perkins, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, emphasizes the importance of the application component. If this is missing, then learning seldom occurs. Leadership programs that simply assign papers, require readings, provide discussions, analyze concepts and present solutions to various problems run the risk of enhancing only a narrow set of leadership skills, namely reading and writing.

Too often, school and college programs view written papers, readings and discussions as a direct correlation to leadership development. Unfortunately, such a correlation, like the dart thrower, collapses in the world of moving targets. A leadership program must focus on helping students to make informed judgments, to analyze problems, to act decisively and to treat people with sensitivity. Each course or event in a leadership program must support the concept of coping with ambiguous and shifting targets.

Assessing Leadership
How would our dart thrower be assessed in academia? A traditional way would be to design a multiple-choice test that included such questions as: What feathers make the best throwing dart? Who started the first dart-throwing tournament? What is the standard length of a dart?

Although such questions might determine a dart thrower’s knowledge base, they can’t validly assess how consistently he can hit the target.

At the outset of this article, I described the strategies the dart thrower used to get ready for the contest. Unfortunately, the dart-throwing strategies that were learned didn’t match the final method of assessment--that of hitting the bull’s eye of several moving targets. Since there are many ways to assess leadership skills, it is imperative that the program develop skills that enhance the student’s ability to hit a moving target. Too many leadership programs focus too narrowly on a stationary target.

A variety of ways can be used by a leadership program assess candidates’ leadership skills. The Center for Creative Leadership and Development Dimensions International offer instruments to assess such concepts as team building, creativity, organizational climate and organizational change. These instruments often provide feedback for the person being assessed from subordinates, colleagues and upper-level administrators. This multilevel feedback is often labeled a 360-degree instrument since it gives insight into how people perceive their leadership performance.

The cost of these instruments range from $50 up to $300 per individual. The instruments can provide valuable data to a participant and often serve as a diagnostic device for both the student and the program. More important, one must first decide how the program will enhance the leadership skills needed for on-the-job performance. Likewise, do the assessment instruments accurately assess the skills needed in analyzing and solving real-life administrative problems? You might decide that leadership inventories do not provide a valid assessment of one’s leadership skills.

Viable alternatives are available for assessing leadership skills of students, teachers and administrators. They include portfolios, on-site projects, simulations and committee leadership roles. With students, as well as with dart throwers, the most important function of assessment is determining how well the academic program prepares the student to hit real targets.

Unfortunately too little attention is paid to assessing whether students can hit moving targets. Instead, narrowly designed assessments are used to measure one’s accuracy in hitting single stationary targets. Although such an assessment provides a reliable score, it does not provide an accurate feedback of actual leadership talents. Therefore, leadership programs, whether designed around a workshop format or a series of courses, must constantly assess whether the program is, in fact, having an impact on actual leadership skills.

Educational Implications
Leadership skills can be taught and learned. But it’s a lot easier to teach about leadership than it is to help students, teachers or administrators to improve leadership skills through actual application. Educational programs that merely string a bunch of courses together and then label it a "leadership program" will teach, at best, a series of unrelated concepts, so the likelihood of developing leadership skills in such a program is remote.

But a leadership program that consistently requires students to solve real-life problems, that tries to improve communication skills, that consistently assesses the students as well as the program and that regularly challenges the students’ imagination and problem-solving skills, runs a good chance of improving leadership skills.

Merely teaching about leaders and leadership is like showing pictures that depict dart throwers hitting a series of moving targets. Learning leadership skills, goes beyond looking at illustrations and shows the student how to become proficient at hitting moving targets. Leadership programs that narrowly focus on hitting stationary targets will have little impact on helping students to become leaders.

Robert Millward is director of administration and leadership studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 136 Stouffer Hall, Indiana, Pa. 15705-1087. E-mail: millward@grove.iup.edu