10 ways Leadership Development must change

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A prominent business management journal put out a piece in the 1970s, outlining key leadership competencies for the modern age. In my own words, their research seemed to support that great leaders exert dominance; are often the loudest, most vocal person in the room; and are highly competitive. The article also noted that to succeed as a peer of these great leaders, one should challenge them moderately and provide praise regardless of whether it seems warranted. That was a generation or two ago and to me, it serves as a reminder that sometimes the prevailing view struggles to understand what good leadership achieves.

To further startle me, I discovered that the concepts of Transformational Leadership and Servant Leadership were not developed at the dawn of the new millennium as I‘d thought, but also during the ‘70s. These perspectives must have looked as soft as a puff of cotton wool in the tread of an 18-wheeler truck back then. But they have persisted and gathered widespread traction.

Yet, even though today’s most valued models for good leadership have finally gained credibility, many leaders are still exhibiting outdated behaviours.

Gallup and others have been studying upwards of 25,000 individual leaders and managers. Staggeringly, a 2016 study found that 8 in 10 had low levels of capability and talent in managing others. Mckinsey has shown that 86% of leaders believe they are effective at role modelling and inspiring action in others, when only 18% of employees agree.

Why are so many weaker at leading people than they believe themselves to be? The evidence is compelling – leaders are often inhibited by a heavily inflated sense of self.

Organisations seeking an advantage, and those possibly following a trend, have made substantial investments in leadership development. In the United States alone, $46 billion was spent in 2017.

Despite these efforts, leadership development programmes regularly fail, which is a tough admission when I’m a consultant in this area. Over the years, I’ve found myself consistently empathising with HR colleagues who lament the time and effort invested in developing leaders, only to have them scratching their heads at the obvious lack of behavioural shift.

The pressure is on and the stakes are high, as a lack of leadership capability is costing business a lot. According to Gallup, it’s $550 billion a year in the US – 10 times what was spent on attempting to develop those very same leaders. Maybe we aren’t spending enough? That may be true but I think there is a significant evolution needed in the field – and I don’t believe that e-learning is an answer to shifting behaviour.

Evolution in the leadership field can be difficult to track, but it’s clear that there are fewer of those who are willing to experiment with new ways of shifting behaviour than those who choose to keep recycling what they’ve learned from predecessors.

This reluctance was revealed again to me when I offered a new collection of development approaches to a large multi-national for a graduate development program. Their response was expected, but still disappointing. They were enthralled at the idea but wanted to play it safe and offer a module structure, in-class and PowerPoint-lead program, supported by group coaching and a project. Old, same old, and failing.

As a new year begins, we all seem to ask ourselves what we can do differently to make life easier, better, more fulfilling. In reality, it takes considerable effort. From more than 15 years of experience supporting people to shift behaviour, here are my insights for designing leadership development and management programmes that won’t fail as readily:

  1. Separate leadership from management development more deliberately.
  2. Create in-context learning rather than in-room learning – enhance the support for on-the-job application.
  3. Link success to observable behavioural shifts in individuals and their teams.
  4. Focus the development on the specific phase of the leader’s stage of life – define that stage and meet the needs and desires that it emphasises.
  5. Provide practical, achievable daily support to shift one behaviour at a time – preferably using personalised, change-tracking technology.
  6. Provide change support through a coaching ecosystem of multiple experts including peers and organisational leaders (and offered in varying configurations of time and frequency).
  7. Measure and re-measure the progression of observed behavioural shifts from the perspectives of the leader’s peers, followers, clients, suppliers and other relevant stakeholders.
  8. Offer explicit psychological insight and support to develop deeper levels of self-awareness – change is Psychological.
  9. Create emergent topics of learning based on the contextual challenges as time evolves.
  10. Stream learning groups according to similar challenges and stage of development.

What would you add to this list?

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