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Increasing complexity is changing how we develop leaders

21st century organisations operate in an increasingly volatile and unpredictable environment with intractable challenges for which there is no single ‘right’ solution[i].

In this context, leaders are faced with a work environment characterised by high levels of complexity and change requiring exceptional levels of personal maturity, people leadership and change agility[ii].

At the same time there are increasing expectations and demands of leaders in business and in the broader political and social context. Where are the good leaders to come from? How are they to be educated and supported in their work? And what are the core capabilities they need to be successful? [iii]

Primary leadership capabilities for complexity

Research and experience indicates these capabilities include:

  • ensuring delivery of enterprise-wide performance and the culture to support it
  • developing the relationship skills and acumen required to influence, negotiate and collaborate with stakeholders effectively
  • building capacity to deal with ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty
  • strengthening self-insight and emotional regulation as a foundation for development
  • understanding leadership styles and identity, and when to shift these to more effectively lead
  • developing capacity to monitor and challenge personal and others’ mindsets and behaviours [iv]
  • focusing on managing energy to support team performance and development[v].

 Addressing these challenges: developing leaders and leadership

To address these challenges, development needs to focus not only on individual capability but also organisational capability[vi].

Leadership development can no longer be simply described as an individual characteristic or capability but rather as a collective or group activity using a relational, strategic global and complex social dynamic[vii].

How to take action?

The next time you’re creating a leadership program, it’s useful to consider your program objectives – should you be focusing only on development of each individual, or should you also be building capability to build performance of the organisation in complexity.

[i] _O’Connell, P. K. 2013. A simplified framework for 21st century leader development. The Leadership Quarterly, Article in Press, 1-21.

[ii] Allen, S. J. & Middlebrooks, A. (2014). The challenge of educating leadership expertise. Journal of Leadership Studies, 6, 84-89.

[iii] Van Velsor, E. (2008). A Complexity Perspective on Leadership Development. Complexity Leadership Part 1: Conceptual Foundations. M. Uhl-Bien and R. Marion. Charlotte, North Carolina, Information Age Publishing Inc. 1: 333-346.

   [iv] Bunker, K. A., Kram, K. E., & Ting, S. (2002). The young and the clueless. Harvard Business Review, 80(12), 80–87.

[v] Cherry, Nita. 2015. Energising Leadership Oxford University Press

[vi] Day, D. V., Fleenor, J. W., Atwater, L. E., Sturm, R. E. & Mckee, R. A. 2014. Advances in leader and leadership development: A review of 25years of research and theory. The Leadership Quarterly, 25, 63-82

[vii] Uhl-Bien, M. & Marion, R. 2008. Introduction: Complexity Leadership-A Framework for Leadership in the Twenty-First Century. In: Uhl-Bien, M. & Marion, R. (eds.) Complexity Leadership Part 1: Conceptual Foundations. Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing Inc.

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