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Leadership development: leaving behind a corrosive culture

In the first of a two-part feature, Charles Jennings explains why leadership development programmes as they stand are, at best, inadequate for today’s connected world and at worst actively corrosive. 

9th Sep 2019
Young happy manager leading the meeting in the office
iStock/skynesher

For most organisations, the development of the next generation of leaders is a priority. 

The spend on leadership development certainly reflects this. In 2019, the leadership training market is worth US$366 billion globally, according to a Training Industry Inc. research report

Leadership development is big business. Growth continues, but its impact is doubtful.

Even immediately following the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, where poor leadership and hubris were principal contributing factors, leadership development providers continued to plough traditional furrows. 

Many of these were business schools offering MBAs and customised executive education programmes that had been shown to be demonstrably unfit for purpose in the financial and business chaos of the crisis. 

We’ve seen little change since then, despite the fact that it’s become clear that we need different solutions in today’s fluid and dynamic world. 

More of the same

Leadership development providers are thick on the ground, each with their particular ‘flavour’ and focus, whether that’s transformational, transactional, situational, adaptive, authentic, psychodynamic, collective, ethical, servant, inclusive or any number of other ‘unique’ offerings. 

Significant measurable impact of any of these is hard to find, however, beyond anecdotal reports and inferences from employee engagement surveys.

It’s clear that 20th century leadership skills are simply not enough for today’s world - organisations are rapidly changing and will continue to change.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organisational behavior at Stanford University and the author of Leadership BS - an excellent exposé of the failure of both leadership development and leadership itself - points out that the gap between the promise and the reality of leadership development is stark. 

Pfeffer found that people embarking on leadership training see this gap and often become disillusioned and distrustful. 

The irony that Pfeffer is a business school professor himself should not be lost. 

This is one of the foxes in the chicken coup calling out to the rest of the pack that, despite the rich pickings, they need to look at the world in another way.

A corrosive culture

The whole ecosystem of leadership that has evolved through leadership development theories and programmes has created this situation. 

It has allowed cultures to emerge that are often corrosive, process-led rather than output-led, and where employee engagement remains low. Leadership expertise is rarely evident. 

Gallup reports that only 13% of employees are engaged, with 24% saying that they are actively disengaged. 

It’s clear that 20th century leadership skills are simply not enough for today’s world - organisations are rapidly changing and will continue to change.

Changing organisations need new approaches

In his 2002 book 'The Age of Unreason', Charles Handy describes an emergent community-oriented federal organisation structure where the key is not power or hierarchical structures but co-ordination.  

In federal organisations, Handy writes, “the initiative, the drive, and the energy come mostly from the parts, with the centre an influencing force, relatively low in profile”. 

Others predict major changes in organisational structures and leadership requirement.

No matter how carefully designed a leadership development programme may be, it will never deliver everything needed. The answer lies in other directions. 

Organisational futurist Jon Husband’s Wirearchy is one such new organising principle. Wirearchy is based on shared responsibilities and collective action. 

In a Wirearchy world, organisations and the people in them operate within a “dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”. 

The vast majority of current leadership development approaches are a long way from addressing the leadership challenges that go with either Handy’s ideas or the emerging Wirearchy organisation.

Reframing leadership development

The famous management consultant and author Peter Drucker once said, “I learn by listening to myself”.

What he meant is that the key to learning and improvement is not reading leadership books, taking formal courses or solving business cases with fellow students. 

No matter how carefully designed a leadership development programme may be, it will never deliver everything needed. The answer lies in other directions. 

He advises either ditching leadership development programmes altogether, or changing them in ways that will make them unrecognisable.

In part two of this feature, I’ll outline the four reasons why leadership programmes fail and discuss how to overcome these obstacles. 
 

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