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Debunking the Myth of Leadership Development
Leaders development

Are leaders being set up to fail?

Whenever you are about to make yourself unpopular, it is always a good idea to say right up front what you are absolutely NOT saying and that you really like children and animals. This is about Leaders and Leadership and so firstly, we must declare that some of our best friends are leaders and many others make a living, out of the burgeoning industry of Leadership Development. We’re am NOT saying that this isn’t an important, worthwhile activity. However…

The industry that serves and supports the development of the leaders of our great institutions with every flavour of coaching, consulting, psychology, assessment, training, models and ‘four- box’ solutions, (yes every self- respecting leadership consultant has at least one), we have found over recent years has been a bit like a ‘stuck record’.  For those of you south of the 50 mark, that’s vinyl and it’s making a bit of a comeback). We tend to be repeating and repeating what leaders need to be doing better and have been for many years, yet the evidence seems to suggest that leaders are faring worse now than they were before all this ‘help’ was available.

In the UK, in case anyone missed it, we had three political leaders resign on the same day due to under-performance. This type of leadership failure is more and more common across all walks of life: business, sports, schools, hospitals and our public institutions, despite millions of hours and pounds researching, training, consulting and developing leaders. So what’s not working?

The answer is not simple. One assumption to challenge here is that the way we think about leadership has not kept up with the changes in the world and this has a number of implications. Before we offer some thoughts and our own observations of those implications, we should firstly say what we mean by that. Typically, we have thought of leaders as people we could ‘look up’ to. They generally had more expertise or experience. They could think, decide, engage people, communicate and implement what needed to be done. They would have one eye on the present and the other on the future. Simplistic, but broadly that’s been our view. Some leaders do these things well and succeed at least for a time. Others don’t and eventually fail.

The ‘look up to’ piece is key as this implies hierarchy and our view of leaders is entwined with our thoughts about organisation. We have persisted with hierarchical organisations for a couple of centuries as it has provided wealth and progress but in the last couple of decades it has creaked at the seams, largely due to the speed at which the world is changing.

The problem is this; as we ‘look up’ and wait for something to come back down, (a decision, an insight, a direction, an answer), by the time it gets back down so we can actually do something about it, things have moved on and we have to look up again for new set of decisions, ideas or answers. Aircraft may be obsolete by the time we get airport expansion in the UK!  You get the point. This lack of responsiveness gets worse as the world moves faster. Which it is. Exponentially so. Many businesses know this and have organised themselves differently, but many still have not and continue to struggle.

The way we think about leaders and their development in truth, still has the concept of hierarchy at its heart, even if we don’t like to admit it. Hence, what we do has a high probability of having little or no long-term impact. It’s like we are training footballers then sending them out to play ice hockey without the proper gear.
The implications are many. Firstly, leaders are set up to fail from the beginning; we are just waiting for them to reach that point. Some development may simply delay the inevitable. We may call failure different things and we often pay leaders a lot of money even when they have ‘failed’, but fail they must.

A second implication is that the new generation joining organisations just don’t get it. They don’t really see why it should be like this. Their world doesn’t tend to look up, it looks across, down, in fact in every direction and connects itself through technology without layers or barriers. At best they are confused, “why on earth do you do it like this?” and often they are totally disengaged “I’ll not be part of this” or “I’ll go and do it myself differently”.

So what needs to change? One challenge to make is to just stop thinking about leadership as a role that is in some way unique that we attribute to a few. Changes in the world mean that what was needed from the hierarchy of a few leaders is now demanded from everyone. The skills (or whatever you want to call them) remain the same. Everyone needs to be able to use knowledge, think, decide, communicate and implement what needs to be done both now and in the future, through other people, whatever their age, function or profession. The ‘other people’ in the new world means anyone who might be needed not just ‘those I am responsible for’ as in the old world. “Everyone’s a leader” is a theme we keep coming back to. Thinking in this way also shifts the burden of responsibility from the few with impossible tasks to all of us.

From a leadership development point of view we need to change our focus from the few to the many. Nobody will have the resources to provide the answers simply through more coaching, more workshops or more training. Leadership development is really now about providing the environment and opportunity for everyone to drive their own development. To achieve this the current ‘leaders’ and the leadership development community must become fantastic ‘facilitators’ and not necessarily authoritative ‘experts’. “Gawd save us from the Guru!” may be another blog!

 

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