Leadership development is stuck in the dark ages

Today's bosses need better help to deal with new technologies, working practices and generational shift.

by Jane Sparrow
Last Updated: 21 Aug 2017

The modern workplace has become complex, volatile and unpredictable. The skills needed for great leadership have dramatically changed and include intelligent behaviours, adaptive thinking and emotional intelligence. However, the methods being used to develop our leaders have not really changed at all.

Bosses are facing increasing challenges - information overload, complex and competing objectives, new technologies that disrupt old work practices and the associated differing values and expectations of new generations entering the workplace. Not to mention increased globalisation and the need to lead and build effective teams across cultures.

Still primarily developed through on-the-job experiences, training, coaching and '360-degree' feedback, our leaders are simply not developing fast enough or in the right ways to match the new environment. Supported by a growing belief among senior executives and up and coming talent that the leadership programs they are attending are insufficient, we need to completely redefine our approach to developing the leaders of tomorrow.

The renowned business thinker Marshall Goldsmith has commented, 'Many of our leadership programs are based on the faulty assumption that if we show people what to do, they can automatically do it.'

However, there is a difference between knowing what "good" leadership looks like and being able to do it. We have arrived at a point where we face diminishing returns from teaching managers more about leadership, when they still have little understanding about what is required for real development to occur.

So what is required?

1. A focus on collective leadership
Leadership development is too individual and elitist, completely out of kilter with today’s environment and its increasing focus on collective rather than individual leadership. There is a transition occurring from the old paradigm in which leadership resided in a person or role, to a new one in which leadership is a collective process that is spread throughout teams and networks of people. Leaders must now ask 'What conditions do we need to continually increase performance in the organisation?'

2. Combining the old and the new
We need to embrace traditional systems, processes and competency development and combine them with more complex behavioural approaches. This would enable leaders to think in a more complex way and demonstrate adaptability, self-awareness, boundary spanning, collaboration and collective or network thinking.

It’s less out with the old and in with the new and more an extension and alignment of existing systems together with buy-in from senior leaders that new methods for development are required and that they will go first. There’s also a requirement to develop a whole new language that best describes our new landscape.

3. Leadership that takes responsibility
The ‘task’ of leadership development is often still left to the HR team - expected to build a leadership pipeline of managers capable of leading ‘creatively’ through turbulent times. Leaders need to demonstrate that personal development is the responsibility of the individual and that they too require regular feedback to foster their own growth.

Stuart Fletcher, former CEO of Bupa and former president of  international business at Diageo has a great technique of asking those around him how he’s doing out of ten - it demonstrates that he understands he requires feedback to grow too, leads to open conversations and encourages other business leaders and managers to behave in a similar way.

4. Alignment of leadership development with organisational culture
We know that leaders want to see executive development better aligned with their company’s business goals. Today’s most successful businesses are developing a suite of leadership behaviours, bespoke to their organisation’s ambition, to drive the creation of positive, high performance workplace cultures. Intrinsically linked back to business objectives, a suite of organisation specific leadership habits ensure that a high performance culture can continue. This codifies leadership behaviours so that development plans can be built around them (and leaders can actually be called-out if they are not fully embracing them).

5. A deeper level of leadership development
Inspiration, enlightenment and empathy are all critical components to the rich leadership development that is required to meet today’s challenges. Resilience is also key for sustained high performance, with leadership development required across the complete physiological and emotional spectrum. This sort of development is often found outside of the business environment. For example, we work with elite performers including Olympians, the Red Arrows and even the horse whisperer to create deeper leadership development and high performance habits.

In today’s complex environments, business strategies cannot be executed without highly developed leaders. Over 80% of senior professionals believe that executive education or leadership development is vital to achieving business goals, key to holding on to their best talent and more important than ever.

The well-established, largely competency-based, development approaches are no longer sufficient to enable leaders to reach peak performance. It’s time to challenge the very notion of leadership in modern business and the purpose of associated leadership development. Only then can we develop highly effective leadership teams able to fully and sustainably engage their organisation – raising team and personal performance to meet the challenges ahead.

Jane Sparrow is an author, culture expert and founder of The Culture Builders 

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