Leadership development is broken – so, how do we fix it?


Leadership development is broken - so, how do we fix it?

Leadership development is broken! How does that statement make you feel? Do you see it as a personal attack and demand proof, or do you nod sadly and agree? And who do you blame; the system, leadership schools, your predecessors, your employer; or perhaps you accept some of the criticism yourself?

Now whilst psychologists may interpret your response as a guide to your leadership style, in a way this isn’t about you. It’s far more about your organization, your people, your customers and the wider world. When leadership fails, they are the ones who suffer. You can move on; they often can’t.

My view on the state of leadership development isn’t new; it’s a comment which I’ve been making for several years. So how do I justify it? Well, let’s make it clear from the start; this isn’t a problem of funding. A report in 2018 [1] put the global cost of leadership development at $50billion per year. Mind you that breaks down as less than $4,000 per leader per year for 68% of organizations with just 8% spending more than $10,000 per leader per year. Nevertheless, the availability of funding for training isn’t in question. 

Nor am I questioning the breadth and choice of development available, from leadership degrees and postgraduate studies in leadership development to customized leadership-development programmes world-class business schools that can reach $150,000 a person. And let’s not forget internal and external training courses delivered by a wide range of institutions, as well as individual support from personal coaches and mentors.

So there’s plenty of support out there. But is it the right support? Have we been developing our current and future leaders to lead in a post-industrialized, innovation-led world? Do development programmes look forward in order to build the skills which future-shaping leaders need? Or, do they hark back to more ‘traditional’ methods of leadership which focus on traditional business models, conventional organizational structures and the exploitation of what exists rather than the exploration of what could be?

Now you could say that it’s unfair of me to expect leadership development programmes to anticipate future changes in business thinking and strategy. You could also argue that giving people a thorough grounding in theory and structure enables them to start with a solid foundation upon which they can build their leadership platform. But, in the world we operate in today, that’s like teaching someone that water is wet and then expecting them to swim the English channel. Globalization, the rise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the drive towards sustainability, the influence of Generation Z, the impact of Covid-19; all these and more have combined to shake the foundations not only of organizations but also of society.

To put it simply, if you base your leadership development on previous methods of working, you are dooming your people and your organization to failure.

In January 2014, a McKinsey report [2] outlined that too many training initiatives rest on the assumption that one size fits all and that the same group of skills or style of leadership is appropriate regardless of strategy, organizational culture, or CEO mandate. The report highlighted four common problems with leadership development programmes. These were overlooking context, decoupling reflection from real work, underestimating mindsets, and failing to measure results. Nearly seven years on the report is still worth a read not only as it’s still current but also as it provides real-world examples of successful and not so successful leadership programmes.

In 2015 Canadian leadership coach Ray Williams commented that

“Most initiatives focus on competencies, skill development and techniques, which in some ways is like rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.” [3]

In that article, he called for development in areas such as self-awareness and emotional self-mastery; arguing that leaders should be humble rather than driven by hubris and ego. But despite excellent research and commentaries of this nature, we still see leaders who are focused more on the practical and less on the possible. As such, they are unlikely to be in a position to effectively lead future-focused organizations which prize innovation-led solutions that make a real long-term difference, ahead of short-term profitability. More importantly, for the long-term viability of their organizations, these leaders are unlikely to look for anything different in their successors, perpetuating a culture of failed development.

A recent report from Leadership IQ starkly highlights the problem. [4] The results from their survey of more than 21,000 employees are worrying, to say the least. I’m just going to pick out a few of them starting with only 20% saying that their leader always takes an active role in helping employees to grow and develop their full potential. One of the critical functions of leadership is that of an enabler. If you aren’t helping your people to reach their potential, you can’t expect them to deliver innovative solutions, to look outside the immediate for what could be achieved. You’re also less likely to develop a leadership pipeline which will provide anything other than the same-old-same-old. So, how is that acting in the best interests of your organization or anyone else?

And that idea of looking outside, of collaborating in development is blown apart when just 29% of employees say their leader is open to using ideas/practices from outside the company to improve performance. Business and business development is no longer a game of solitary one-upmanship. If you aren’t drawing ideas in from researchers, from customers, from other sectors and even from others in your field, then you are doing your customers and investors a disservice.

Or how about the notion of the leader’s vision for the future aligning with that of the organization? I’ve quoted it before, and no doubt will again but look at Kodak. Having developed the digital camera way before anyone else, they chose to ignore the idea and concentrate on sales of film; a classic case of short-term profits being seen as more important than long-term viability or shaping the future. Have businesses learnt from this? Not when only 29% believe that their leaders and organization’s visions are aligned? Statistics such as these are echoed in other reports, all of which point to a failure in leadership development leading inexorably to a loss in future-facing innovative outcomes.

So what do leaders need in order to succeed in today’s and tomorrow’s world? Having coached numerous leadership teams around the world on what I call ‘Leading FOR Innovation’, my experience has shown that the most significant challenge is the requirement to change behaviour. And that fundamentally means reframing underlying mindsets, habits and subconscious behaviour. The challenge, as reinforced in the McKinsey report [2] is that the majority of organizations seem reluctant to address the elephant in the room and challenge why many leaders behave in the way they do. There’s no doubt that this is an uncomfortable process for both coaches and participants, but without this naked, honest, albeit inconvenient approach, I’ve never really seen change stick.

The best leadership experts/coaches in the world are adept at helping leaders uncover deep ‘below the surface’ thoughts, feelings, assumptions, and beliefs in order to change and reframe how they lead. The challenge is I rarely see organizations take this depth of approach in leadership development programmes, despite it being one of the main preconditions of behavioural change.

Green Park’s DNA of the future retail CEO report [5] reveals that the top three traits for leaders as being a clear vision/change agent, a customer-led approach and a collaborative approach to leadership. In the ‘Leading FOR Innovation’ programmes, I run globally; I also think it’s crucial to show leaders how to become what I call ‘A little more Martin Luther King and a little more Einstein’. In other words, more purpose-led and creatively-driven. When leading an organization where innovation is the focus, leaders need to align actions and behaviour to a core purpose, i.e. ‘purpose-driven innovation’ and to do that requires an understanding of design thinking, strategic creativity and empathy in order to be human-centric. When these ingredients are combined, I’ve found leaders become more curious about what’s possible vs what currently exists. That, in turn, makes them more willing to experiment and explore, and that’s crucial to innovation.

The point here is that redesigning leadership development programmes to be contemporary and fit-for-the-future means matching specific leadership mindsets, behaviours and values to the context at hand. In other words, authentic leadership has moved on from facts, figures and autocracy, to embrace personal qualities such as vision, collaboration, openness and creativity. To fix leadership development, we need to fix qualities such as these in the behaviours and mindsets of our current and future leaders. Until we do so, leadership development will sadly remain broken.

[1] https://www.chieflearningofficer.com/2018/03/21/follow-the-leadership-spending/
[2] https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/leadership/why-leadership-development-programs-fail#
[3] http://libraryofprofessionalcoaching.com/wp-app/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Why-Leadership-Development-Fails-to-Produce-Good-Leaders.pdf
[4] https://www.leadershipiq.com/blogs/leadershipiq/leadership-development-state
[5] https://www.green-park.co.uk/insights/dna-of-the-future-retail-ceo/
This article was previously published on Outcome.

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