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A world without leadership development, Lisa Sofianos for Leaders Now

A world without leadership development

Posted on August 17, 2017

Lisa Sofianos is an international leadership consultant and business author, she is the founder and Director of Robin Ryde Consulting.

Measuring the value or impact of leadership development is a tricky, and not altogether satisfactory, pursuit.  The more you dig into the subject the more slippery the idea becomes.  When looking at the impact of leadership development on the behaviour of individual participants, perhaps as they return to the workplace, we may be able to identify important observable changes; returning participants may ask more questions instead of providing answers, they may work more collaboratively, engage more with their colleagues, that kind of thing.  While these changes may be good and desirable, they are inevitably only part of the story.   Firstly, to get a fuller picture of the impact of development we would have to be around to see all the changes taking place - requiring a level of omnipresence beyond the reach of most evaluators.  Secondly, the story is partial because the new thinking that underpins observable changes in behaviour can run much deeper.  The metaphor of an iceberg hiding so much more below the surface can hold true in this situation.  In terms of this thinking finding its way to the surface and manifesting in behaviour or decision-making, the right conditions may need to be in place - a crisis, a big change programme or perhaps even a vacancy at the top – all triggers for the application of learning.  And without some of these circumstances being in place, some of the most profound impacts of leadership development can remain invisible and dormant, and thought therefore not to exist, while they may in fact lie in waiting to pounce when the time is right.

Another spanner in the works of quantifying impact is the gap that exists between the theoretical models and concepts taught through leadership development, and the real and lived experience of leaders.  By this I mean that the cutting-edge ideas and frameworks that may be passed on in teaching, should not be understood as representing a guaranteed formula for success.  Nor would it be reasonable to expect them to be carried out to the letter.  What the keen-eyed evaluator may look for in the application of models and methods in the workplace just may not be there.  And this is not because the leadership development investment hasn’t been useful, rather it may be because the participant absorbs them into their own knowledge and experience, and applies them in very different and sometimes unexpected ways.   The line of sight between input and output, for some of the best reasons, may not be very clear; the ‘audit trail’ a little muddy.

So, it is perhaps worth acknowledging that the business of evaluation is complex and for this reason it may be more useful, if not less painful, when examining the value of leadership development, to imagine instead a world without it.  To paint the picture of how organisations might operate if it weren’t there.  

At first I suspect that this world might look very similar to ours.  It would still be filled with a huge variety of enterprises busily engaged in their chosen activity.  Organisations would still operate through hierarchies of one sort or another, and ‘leadership’ would still get done.  From a distance it may be indiscernible from the current situation.  But closer up, we may see some meaningful differences.  

Let us start with one possible consequence, that without leadership development, organisations run the risk of becoming cul-de-sacs of knowledge.  Importantly, all enterprises are engaged in competition; for resources, clients, expertise, assets, know-how and so on.  And this is not an activity that is the preserve of the private sector. Competition may be less acute according to the sector to which we belong, but you can be sure that it is alive, well and driving a lot of behaviour in organisations.   And whereas competition has the effect of keeping expertise and strategies under wraps, in order to protect a competitive edge, leadership development, in contrast, has a commitment to the exact opposite; to exposing new ideas, sharing wisdom, making sense of what works, and learning from experience.  If it were not for the work of leadership developers and strategy analysts, who would we look to in order to make sense of and learn the lessons from the collapse of Borders, the bankruptcy of high street giant Woolworths, the rise of corporate universities, the leadership challenges of massive open online courses (MOOCS), the sharing economy models of working (Uber, airbnb), the new tech companies and so on?  And if you think the answer lies in leaders doing research for themselves or reading business books, how many books a year do you think your senior leaders could get through alongside the day job?

Without leadership development we may see organisations becoming idiosyncratic, having been built upon foundations of commonsense thinking where faults and weaknesses become compounded and areas of unawareness and neglect left to fester.  Folklore, rather than evidenced-based lessons drawn from a number of close and far away sources, might create an unbalanced and uninformed view about what good leadership constitutes. A not invented here approach to management might cause multiple re-inventions of the wheel, rather than taking a more efficient route of borrowing ideas from those have done this before.  

In the absence of a common language of leadership and a shared set of organisational principles, collaboration could be severely hampered.  Time and effort would need to be diverted to mapping and understanding unfamiliar systems and processes, and in our fast changing environment this could lead to missed opportunities.

For me one of the most important roles that leadership development can play for leaders is to provide ventilation to their thinking through sharing experiences, inputting new ideas from the cutting edge and holding a space for them to experiment and learn from experience in safety.  The risk of creating an organisational cul-de-sac, or even a gated-community, without leadership development, is transformed into a thriving modern city with multiple crossroads, roundabouts and intersections that allow for ideas, experiences and learning to circulate.  

Another consequence of the removal of leadership development relates to the pace of change in the operating environment and the risk that without assistance and rapid learning, organisations will struggle to stay relevant.  Our paradigms of leadership, rooted in the past as they are, are no longer adequate for dealing with the “new normal” and leadership pioneers like Prof. Ronald Heifetz, with his Adaptive Leadership model, have made huge strides in constructing a leadership response that is more fit for purpose.  That Command and Control leadership is now largely consigned to times of acute crisis isn’t new news to anyone, but would this ever be the case without leadership development?  Where else would such concerted thought be devoted to the business of how we lead and then shared in service of helping leaders succeed?  In a world without leadership development, ideas and traditions may long outstay their usefulness without the challenge presented by thought leaders.

Notwithstanding the changes swirling around externally in the operating environment, organisations are facing major change from within.  The challenges of reconciling an aging population with rapid technological advancements are already being felt by workforces that span Baby Boomers and Digital Natives.  It’s tempting to wonder if the fate of HMV would have been different if the senior team could have had a useful conversation with their younger store employees about how their generation consumes music. How much more seriously might they have taken the phenomenon of downloadable music if they had done so?

Rapid technological advancement is here to stay, and Gordon Moore’s assertion that processing speed doubles every two years has held true for decades.  In fact the timescale is now closer to 18 months. Leaders on the brink of paradigm-shifting innovations such as the application of Artificial Intelligence will need to look far beyond themselves in order to make sense of the implications and impacts.

New technology conditions the behavior of workforces in other ways too.  People have grown used to accessing a seemingly unlimited store of knowledge and information through the internet  and are exercising a greater level of engagement and autonomy in their lives. They question experts; shop around; bypass intermediaries; and they are beginning to expect similar levels of involvement in their workplace.   This may demand from leaders a new approach to the distribution of executive power and accountability and directly challenge the hierarchical structures that they have grown up with.  Pioneers such as Timpsons, with their “Upside Down Leadership” approach, are already working to find ways of unlocking the benefits of this cultural shift, although this would be outside of the awareness of most leaders without the shared learning commitment of leadership developers.

Leaders are faced with steep learning curves on all sides as they grapple with a complex and volatile world.  Often they are breaking new ground as the emerging effects of technology, climate change and shifting demographics present novel challenges.  In this context it is seldom enough to rely on the relatively small store of experience and expertise that can be accrued by a senior team in order to meet these challenges and thrive. Leaders need shortcuts to best practice; new frames of reference and provocations to generate new thinking; and a reflective space to meet with peers to make sense of it all.   In this way I believe that leadership development is one of our best tools to engage with the “new normal”.  To return to the beginning of this piece, and the thorny subject of measuring impact, perhaps we should concede the point that leadership development has a profound and meaningful contribution to make to the business of leading. With this framing principle we should be directing much more of our effort away from proving that value and much more of it towards creating the conditions for success.

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