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Developing effective leaders: an exercise in chasing rainbows?

Simon Dane
PA Consulting Group
HR Zone
4 March 2008

True leadership development has to challenge both the head and the heart, says Simon Dane

In this world, where debates are rife, few would question the importance of leadership within organisational and corporate life. We know that leaders make a real difference in delivering outstanding performance, in generating extraordinary levels of discretionary effort out of the people they are responsible for, and in successfully driving and leading significant transformational change.

We also know that securing and nurturing the leadership talent of the future is on every executive team's agenda. Investing in the development of this critical asset is as close to a 'no-brainer' as it is possible to get.

Organisations continue to invest millions in leadership
We are awash with leadership programmes, personal discovery courses, conferences, business schools and consultancies and the airport bookshelves testify to the ongoing popularity of the leadership self-help genre. Our collective appetite remains as healthy as ever.

At an organisational level, investments in leadership development tend to focus either on the systems and processes (for example on competence frameworks, talent management programmes and performance management structures) or on the traditional and experiential development interventions (for example outward bound courses and classroom-based workshops).

While these approaches have their value and their place, they often fail to deliver against expectations on their own – a focus on systems and processes often have limited impact on the underlying behaviour changes required, and the experiential learning can be too detached from the organisational context and relevance to have sustained meaning.

But is the investment delivering?
So are we chasing rainbows believing that significant investments in leadership development can truly make a demonstrable difference? Or are we better cutting spend to the minimum required, and investing the money in other assets where the returns are more predictable?

The answer to both questions is no. That said, any leadership development investment needs to strike the right balance between enhancing organisational capability and meeting business needs, and supporting the personal aspirations and expectations of the individual leaders.

Moreover, true leadership development works best when fusing the rational, structured and logical with the emotional, the values-based and spontaneous – in other words, challenge both the head and the heart.

Furthermore, development cannot be divorced from the realities of the working environment. There needs parallel activity enhancing the culture in which leadership operates so that is high energy, positive, and optimistic. This allows leaders to flourish – at its best, truly effective leadership becomes contagious. Role models emerge, behaviours and attitudes shift.

When the culture, the structures and processes, and the leadership development activities are all aligned, there is the potential for extraordinary returns on investment to materialise. But what needs to be put in place to be confident in securing such success?

Thinking about leadership in a different way
It is argued below that we need to think about leadership development in a different way, focusing on three distinct areas:

  • Creating the right leadership context
  • Laying the appropriate leadership foundations
  • Sustaining leadership excellence

Let's look at each of these in turn:

Creating the right leadership context: What this means is the need to define what leadership really means within a given organisation or function. All too often, generic leadership models are adopted or competence frameworks amended but these inevitably suffer from their predictability and from being disconnected from the realities of the business. Far more powerful is the creation of leadership stories, descriptions of what successful leaders do and have done – stories that are grounded in organisational reality.

Furthermore, however, leadership is defined (be it by lists of attributes or by description); leaders must have the ability to assess how they stack up against the leadership expectations, to effectively diagnose the 'self'. This exercise should err away from being a left-brained 'tick-box' assessment – the more emotionally challenging and even uncomfortable the exercise the better, if our leaders are to take proactive ownership of their development.

Laying the appropriate leadership foundations: Too often we see structural and cultural blocks that inhibit effective leadership; complicated governance structures hindering decision-making, procedures suppressing innovation, and performance management creating discordant individual behaviours. Unblocking these constraints can have significant impacts, and at their best are symbolic of a wider change.

In addition, the developmental agenda needs to avoid too much emphasis on the personal motivations and aspirations of individuals – disjointed and sporadic approaches will result. Instead, designing a coherent leadership agenda focused on known capability gaps provides greater collective impetus, especially when aligned with creative and inter-connected learning and development solutions.

Sustaining leadership excellence: Traditional approaches to developing leadership are becoming less relevant with each passing decade. Development now needs to have unpredictability and edge, and can benefit from being less controlled and much more challenging, particularly emotionally. If momentum and energy can be created as an integral part of development activity, there is a far better chance that this can be immediately translated back into the workplace.

Tracking the benefits of development is nothing new, and indeed this article at the outset referred to the challenges of making appropriate returns on investment. Evaluation approaches in learning are well known and understood, if somewhat difficult to identify and capture.

However, in our experience, it is just as important to capture leadership good news stories and highlight where leaders are taking personal risks and making things happen. These stories need to be publicised, celebrated and rewarded – get this right, and the human need to conform and belong kicks in, leadership role models become more prevalent, and in turn develop prominence and ultimately organisational kudos.

Even though question marks will continue to hang over the effectiveness of leadership development spend, there is little to suggest that the quantum of that spend will reduce over the coming years. That infers that the quality of the spend will become subject to even greater scrutiny – the good news is that taking a fresh, innovative approach to development, balancing both organisational and individual agendas, and the rational and emotional challenges, can yield far greater returns, and help develop a community of truly effective high-performing leaders.

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