Leadership development – why have we got it so wrong?

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership recently.  Everywhere I turn people want to talk about leadership – at work, in conferences, LinkedIn groups, Twitter, in sport.

Last week I facilitated a workshop at the NZAGE Summit on the subject of developing future leaders from our graduate population. The thing that struck me as I researched the session was the dearth of innovative, imaginative and forward thinking in this area.  Certainly in New Zealand, we just aren’t doing it well and it seems most potential leaders have to go offshore to get the development they need and we let it happen and just hope they come back home at some point in their future career.  But, despite all the research, training and text books on leadership, it isn’t just a New Zealand problem and it seems we are not producing great leaders anywhere around the world.

The week before NZAGE I attended the annual Human Synergistics Conference held in both Wellington and Auckland. Shaun McCarthy, Australasian Chairman of Human Synergistics, is always an interesting and thought provoking speaker and he mentioned recent research his company had done with 6500 top executives on both sides of the Tasman. Of those surveyed, over 70% business leaders are said to lack high levels of vision. Just 7% were said to have high levels of visionary thinking, enhanced productivity and the ability to bring out the best in others. Executives blame stress and pressure.

McCarthy has been quoted as saying the small number of visionary leaders across New Zealand and Australia is a direct result of how we have been taught to think for generations. He talked passionately about the need to be “a conscious organisation.”  By that he means one that has a high awareness of its purpose and the impact of what it does on its customers, employees, shareholders and wider community. And more importantly for me, one that has a proactive attitude to change (seeing it as a challenge not a threat) and focuses on long term effectiveness as opposed to the short-term view that seems prevalent these days. Short-termism does not lead to a constructive and successful culture.

Shaun’s presentation is on the Human Synergistics website if you are interested and he defined “the conscious organisation” as one that has the following qualities:

  • Courageous and visionary leaders
  • Aligned, cohesive teams
  • Motivated and engaged people
  • Coordinated functions united in purpose
  • Vision, purpose, values
  • Compelling strategy
  • Structure that empowers
  • Systems promoting excellence
  • Challenging realistic goals
  • Motivational job design
  • Disciplined execution
  • Distributed influence
  • Genuine communication

We all want to work in that sort of organisation, right?  And of course it has to come from the top down. Sadly, if our leaders don’t have the vision to take us there most organisations are not going to perform to the level they could do. So let us reflect on that last bullet point about genuine communication for a second.

I am sure I’m not alone in feeling we need to do something different. But what exactly?  Do we think leadership development has kept up with the pace of technological, global and demographic change? I’m starting to believe it hasn’t and it’s arguable that the complexity of the modern workplace has actually led to a failure of the traditional approaches to leadership development.

I have just read an excellent White Paper by Dr Hilary Armstrong who talks about leadership development for the future and makes these same points. She suggests we stop labouring under long held perceptions that a) leaders are born not made, or that b) leadership is a learned skill and can be boiled down to a set of competencies.  Dr Armstrong argues that 21st century leadership needs to start with the assumption that “connected intelligence” is the key. And this echoes Shaun McCarthy’s views about the conscious organisation.

We need to shift the focus from individual competencies to the creation of collaborative and networked organisational cultures through the development of agile, open and resourceful minds. Armstrong argues that leadership is not about heroic actions and charisma, but is a collaborative and democratic activity and grows out of the spontaneous conversations and relationships that happen every day as people face and deal with work crises.  A connected leader knows how to manage the conversation and the right style to use to suit the circumstances. They also know how to pause in the moment before responding, and will have high levels of self awareness. They know how to communicate in other words.

So what does that mean for those of us in HR roles where we are expected to provide leadership development?  In the real world we often battle with high turnover, talent shortages, under-performance and low engagement of staff and wonder what band aids we can put in place to fix these problems. It really all comes down to conversations and Dr Armstrong has some interesting suggestions to develop the different types of conversations needed in the workplace under-pinned by mindfulness and self awareness.

So it’s time to throw out the leadership development programmes and text books and start again with a new approach. If your HR and learning strategies are focused on quick fixes and stuck in the dark ages then you may as well pack up and go home. I think it’s time to wake ourselves up in HR, challenge our own thinking and work out how we can contribute to creating a vibrant and successful connected and conscious organisation. I don’t have all the answers yet, but I’m thinking about it and I know this is somewhere HR can make a real difference to the bottom line. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

Nurse, the smelling salts please…

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