Zone of Proximal Leadership Development

In the dim and distant past I used to teach children how to perform a gymnastic backflip.

As a physical education teacher I took great pleasure helping a child who could barely do a forward roll to be able to experience the joy of completing an unsupported back flip just ten weeks later.

The first thing to admit is that I couldn’t perform a backflip myself – never could, and certainly now, never will. But that didn’t prevent me from creating a safe place for young people to gradually progress to achieve something that most thought well beyond them.

My thinking had been hugely informed by my own experience as a pupil. For in those black and white days it was most typically a command shouted at you by the gym teacher – followed by a crashing (and often painful) experience as you failed miserably to fulfil the full skill.

Learners need to know two things if they are to trust you as a teacher, firstly, they need to know that you won’t let them be hurt physically; and, secondly, they need to know that you won’t let them be hurt emotionally. With those two conditions satisfied, children – and just about any learner for that matter – will reach well beyond what they instinctively think are their limits.

The great breakthrough during my career was the introduction of crash mats – in my school days we had coconut matting which was almost as hard and as unforgiving as the ground.

Through the judicious use of crash mats, springboards, trampets and careful support it was possible to create a safe environment in which everyone – regardless of body shape could experience success.

The term ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ ZPD was first coined by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. ZPD is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help. The proximal referred to the proximity or closeness they were to the skills that they could not do without support or modification.

In my gymnastic class the Zone of Proximal Development was that space we moved through over those ten weeks. As learners mastered one part of the skill I would start to remove the support , or, as Vygotsky would term it, ‘scaffolding’. As they moved on to more complex elements new support/scaffolding was introduced and again removed as confidence grew.

By moving learners through these progressive Zones of Proximal Development they eventually came to a point where most found that they could perform the skill without support.

So, to leadership. I see more and more in my work with leaders that there are equivalents to the backflip. Although these capacities are not perhaps as obvious as it’s physical counterpart they are no less more complex and difficult – especially if the leader typically defaults to other behaviours with which they are more comfortable.

It’s this area that is giving us in Ceannas some if our greatest return – especially where we can create appropriate scaffolding – and to think that it goes back to my days in the gymnasium. Who would have thunk it?