A while ago we had a conversation with one of our clients. They implemented a well thought through leadership development approach for their senior leaders. The programme included participation in a social learning networks, reflective leadership journaling and utilised an inquiry-based team process (an ongoing cycle of inquiry: question, investigate, reflect, and improve). Excellent results were obtained in terms of the feedback received from the senior leaders who participated in the programme. A year later our client realised that nothing has changed. Maybe it is a bit unfair to say that nothing has changed – individual leaders did grow and some behavioural changes were observed.
But in the end the realisation came that 1) some leaders knew what to say or do but were not willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it and 2) this programme could just not create sufficient critical mass to support the leadership development intent. The legitimacy of management (and leadership) is under fire as never before. Fundamental questions are raised about why managers/ leaders act and feel empowered to act in the ways they do. This is further coupled by significant debate around the impact and effectiveness of leadership development. Some of the research indicates that there is dissatisfaction with the results of leadership development, while questions are also being asked about the way we develop leaders. In our own interaction with clients we hear similar arguments. It’s as if organisations assume that if we show leaders what to do they will automatically do it. Our cognitive biases often lead us astray, particularly when we have to make, big, difficult, (and) painful choices.
Somehow it also seems that current leadership development programmes are not able to equip leaders with the necessary skills and tools to deal with the current volatile, ambiguous and complex business environment.
We think the challenge doesn’t only rest in leadership development. Leadership development should form part of an integrated view around leadership. We know that the days of the individual heroic leader who could inspire organisations are numbered. We know that this demanding complex business world requires leadership that is able to create shared possible futures realising a shared, specific chosen future with, through and for people. The future forms the context from which leadership derives justification and meaning on why and how to act. Leadership is more and more seen as a social process that engages everyone in the community but organisations have traditionally focused on developing individuals so that they can become better leaders – therefore the concept leader development. We even refer to the concept of individual development plans, putting the emphasis on individual learning. It clearly does not make sense to only focus on developing individual leaders, and there seems to be a growing recognition that the emphasis should be on developing leadership as a collective. What we are envisaging is that the future might very likely be about developing leadership communities and networks of leaders.
Given these trends we need to rethink how we define leadership beyond the “leader”; create a leadership brand that has “bankable” value; and create congruence between internal and external perceptions of leadership. Our own sense is that in addition to the above the future challenge is to create a community of leaders able and willing to lead organisations through the turbulence of an increasingly complex world.