Leadership development isn't working. Why?

Pushing boulder up hill
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Blaire Palmer
Author, speaker, agent provocateur for CEOs and their teams
That People Thing
Columnist
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Blaire Palmer has been in the leadership development field for nearly two decades. And in that time she’s experienced plenty of fads. But rarely has she come across leadership development that really works. In this two-part series Blaire busts some myths about leadership development and offers some alternatives that might actually create more leadership. You can also listen to Blaire’s related podcasts on this topic here and here.

Let’s say you’re at a leadership development workshop next week. Are you looking forward to it or are you wondering whether your time would be better spent getting through some real work?

Chances are you’d rather skip it. Once you’re there you might feel differently. But right now, seeing it looming in the diary and looking at everything else you have to do, it feels like the wrong commitment at the wrong time.

Listen. I hear you. I’m pretty used to walking in to a workshop that I’m going to be running and knowing that most people in the room don’t want to be there. For a decade I ran workshops in this knowledge but it didn’t seem there was much I could do about it except change their mind in the room. They’d still have a bug bear about leadership development but make an exception for me. And that would have to be OK.

Except is isn’t OK...

Never before have businesses had such a need for real leadership.

We need people to take the initiative, to take risks, to come up with better ideas, to question conventional wisdom, to be brave, to push at the boundaries of what’s known and of what is perceived as possible.

Too many businesses are stuck in a rut. And that’s dangerous. They survive because they are big and ubiquitous and because it takes a long time for the impact of poor thinking, poor decision-making and poor behaviour to filter down to the bottom line or filter up to the share price.  

Leadership isn’t marginal to the success of the business. It’s core.

But one day, very soon, some sparky little business that is packed with true leaders who are willing to look at things differently is going to come up your blind side and change your industry forever. Your complacency has a price. You’ll be unable to respond quickly because agility isn’t baked in to your culture. And in any case, you shouldn’t be responding. You should be leading.

So let’s start by busting some prevailing myths about leadership development that keep us stuck in the margins -

Myth 1 - Leadership development happens on a course

Working in HR and L&D is thankless in some ways. There’s what the business considers “real work” and then there’s the stuff they do with you. Too often finance, operations and sales are thought of as the centre of the business, the stuff that drives the engine and the “people side” is the icing on the cake.

And the proof is that, typically, leadership development is marginal. Once a year, twice a year, or one day every month for 6 months, your managers get the opportunity to formally grow their leadership muscle. They take time out of the “real work” and have a glorious day doing their own self development.

They feel enriched, valued, energised and full of ideas. And then they get back to the “real world” and have to implement what they learnt. Most will fail and the effort to maintain their enthusiasm is too great when the pressure to keep turning the handle of the machine is so significant.

Except that becoming a leader, or becoming a better leader, isn’t something that happens in a training room. And leadership isn’t marginal to the success of the business. It’s core.

Every decision those guys are making while they do the “real work” is determining the success of the business. Every time they open their mouths they are influencing the success of the business. Every time they call a meeting, or give someone feedback, or hire someone, or fire someone, or set a target, or set priorities, or create a strategy they are determining the success of the business. They can either do that within a big bubble or they can do that in a tiny bubble.

The size of the bubble (we’re all in a bubble, none of us has ultimate wisdom) is determined by the quality of leadership they can muster and the quality of leadership around them.

So it’s not good enough to do leadership development the way we’ve always done it knowing that it isn’t really working.

You’ll know if this is how leadership development is seen if you ask your managers when they last had any leadership development and they tell you about a course they went on last year. The answer you really want is “yesterday, when we spent an hour as a team exploring how our assumptions had led to the slow pace of the project so far and agreed to adjust our perspective and see things differently”.

When you are thinking about leadership development, stop thinking about courses and start thinking about how to create opportunities for reflection, self-coaching, co-coaching and learning in real time.

Myth 2 – Leadership development works pretty well

I’m not saying you’re not working your behind off to make it work. It’s frustrating for me too. Every time I’m asked to run a “Giving Feedback” workshop, or a “Communication Skills” workshop or a “Change” workshop a little bit of me dies. I can say no. I’m not an employee and I can choose my clients to a great extent. As an internal L&D person it’s harder for you.

But in terms of how well your company is transforming in to a business that is re-shaping the industry, disrupting itself continually as needed, where people feel they can do their best work every day because the leadership creates space for them to thrive, can you say you’re there yet? And can you say that the programmes that you’re running are playing a key role in manifesting that environment?

I don’t have a magical solution by the way. But I do think we need to be much more honest about whether the habits we’ve fallen in to with our “Training Needs Analyses” and our “happy sheets” and our procurement process that drives down cost without measuring value are good enough given the scale of the mountain we’re trying to climb.

A former client recently asked me if I would train in a new “change model” they wanted to roll out across the business...

I would then teach this change model to leaders within the business to help them be more adaptable to change and to help them lead their people through change. I had to refuse.

The problem this organisation has with change will not be solved by introducing a new change model. The problem is that the business is deeply hierarchical, people are terribly over-stretched and under-valued, share price and quarterly profit statements drive strategic decisions and people have lost their passion for what they do (unsurprisingly).

No amount of conventional leadership development and no single change model is going to unpick all of that.

Instead we need to go to the heart of the issue – to the deep-seated beliefs and assumptions of the people who create this culture – and work with them to shift their perspectives. Blaming the middle management and sending them away for a day to learn about resistance to change is avoiding the true culprit.

Myth 3 - Leadership development is like training as an accountant

At some point we started believing that leadership is a profession. Therefore one requires a solid academic curriculum in order to do leadership.You need to go on a course, ideally one stuffed with academic papers, case studies, theories and models, books to read, statistics to make it all appear very scientific, and possibly even an exam at the end.

Because it’s the “hard” skills that are valued in business, we make leadership appear like a hard skill too, something intellectually challenging and complex. There’s a right way to do leadership that involves mastering a list of attributes and it is possible to describe exactly what a great leader does and who a great leader is and measure you against that standard and give you a grade.

But what if leadership isn’t like accountancy? What if it isn’t an academic endeavour? What if it isn’t a profession? What does leadership development look like then?

Leadership is not a professional skill like architecture or law. It’s more like being a good citizen, a parent, a loving partner. How do we learn this stuff? We might go on a course occasionally and we might read books or watch videos and listen to podcasts.

We might also make a lot of mistakes along the way. We might make our own mind up about what being a good citizen or parent looks like based on our values or our experiences. We might be drawn to be part of a community or to be part of a family or part of a relationship that we feel aligns with what we believe to be important.

We might get more or less involved at certain times depending on what else is going on or what we’re needed for. We might never feel that we’ve mastered it.

Most of all, it’s self-directed. It’s like home school not an MBA. You decide what you’re interested in, where to access more information, and when you’re done.

By moving leadership development away from the academic and embracing the inner work and the inner world of the leader we may just be able to make a difference to the leadership culture and therefore the success of our company.

Myth 4 – Leadership is leadership

Winston Churchill. Mother Theresa. Steve Jobs. Jack Welch. Sir Alex Ferguson. To be a bit provocative let’s throw Hitler in too. All models of leadership. Well, all models of leadership that so many leadership programmes will refer to when trying to describe what a leader is and what a leader does.

I’m not denying that these individuals were leaders. But what do they have to do with your business in the 21st Century? Do you need more Churchills in your business? Do you really want Steve Jobs?

Let’s just think for a moment about what your business is trying to achieve and what kind of leadership is needed to achieve that.

Yes, it is more difficult to talk about authenticity, vulnerability, beliefs and assumptions, inner work, building trust, collaboration, self-management, ego and empathy. Yes, some of your old-school, command and control, university of hard knocks guys will resist and describe it as wishy-washy, soft and fluffy nonsense. But how’s their approach actually working? It’s not. Or it’s not going to for long.

New generations of employees won’t tolerate it...

Customers won’t be served by it. Innovations and re-inventions won’t be possible. Efficiency savings and recruitment freezes won’t be enough to remain competitive. Only leaders who are willing to set aside their personal ego drivers and understand how their biases influence decisions (for better or worse) will be able to help their business stay relevant.

And that’s why using age-old models of leadership don’t work. True leaders are originals. Churchill was. Steve Jobs was. Leaders aren’t those who pick a model and follow it. Followers do that. Real leaders look at what is and what could be and disrupt the status quo, including disrupting themselves. 

Leadership development might be one of the most fun aspects of our work. Compared with recruitment, payroll, policies and procedures, terminations and re-orgs, getting to work with the brightest and most influential in your organisation and helping them grow is possibly the best bit. But unless we keep our own assumptions under review, unless we keep busting myths and avoiding habitual thinking then the value of what we do with our leaders is continually diminished. And that’s not fun at all.

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