What’s important in leadership development
Last year Jeffery Pfeffer challenged those working on the development of leaders to move beyond simple recipes for great leaders because the recipes aren’t working[i]
He says they aren’t working because the list of capabilities required of leaders aren’t real. They focus on an idealised world where, for example, leaders don’t lie and are always authentic.
The pressure on leaders
The need to aim for an unattainable ideal of behaviour, emotional stability and vision may be decreasing leaders’ interest in developing capability as a leader.
And as Pfeffer says, it’s likely that an idealised view of leadership is ignoring what it really takes to lead our organisations today.
What does this mean for the development of leadership capability?
My PhD research examines the practice of leadership development. I’ve also been establishing, facilitating, and designing leadership development programs for more than 20 years and more than 10,000 people (I know it sounds a lot but I’ve developed programs for large organisations, education, health and also for the state public sector system in Queensland Australia). I have also evaluated the impact of leadership development for organisations from the Cape York (Australia) Indigenous Leadership Program to global companies like Nestle Malaysia and Singapore.
There are some fundamentals that I’ve learnt – based on my experience and impact measurement evidence, and also based on leadership development academic research.
Developing real, impactful, leaders
- Leadership can be learnt but it requires time and space and program designs need to provide time for sensemaking, for exploring personal perceptions, practicing change, seeking feedback on behavioural patterns and leadership impact, facilitated by experts in experiential and group learning, and supplemented by other expertise, generally including coaching
- Leadership in context – for leaders to get engaged, development has be crafted to recognise and relate to their organisational context and their lives – this will mean the program is much more likely to be embedded in post-program behaviours
- Development recognises strengths leaders bring. And this is incredibly energizing and different from their experience of many leadership development activities that are focused on gaps or how far they are from the ideal – for more see the work of Kim Cameron, Jane E Dutton and Robert (Bob) E Quinn
- Integrated learning includes exploring leadership through academic models and theories; along with stories of leaders and organisations; active reflection; promoting the practice of new behaviours; receiving feedback that is about them – which together ramps up the impact results
- Learning and unlearning takes time, so programs need to be designed to recognise that leaders take time to build awareness of changes they need/want to make and then to actually undertake the change, modular programs held over time – edutainment it isn’t
- Focus on what can be taken back to work – working with participants to understand how they can take what they have learnt back and embed it in the complexity and chaos of the real world of work. See Nita Cherry’s book on Energising Leadership for some great tips
- Help to understand impact – new changes in behaviour are often subtle and leaders may not notice that they have changed, so providing methods of reflection, for example interviewing them some time after the program has ended, can help them recognise what has changed and celebrate success.
Great leadership development has a flow on effect, it’s not only good for leadership at work but it’s good for life at home – this is one of my ways of informally measuring the impact of a program.
What’s real about this approach is that it focuses on where people are at and provides them with many ways to move to where they want to be, and where they need to be to lead organisations.
I’d been alerted to Jeffery Pfeffer’s book through a presentation by Bob Quinn at the Academy of Management in Anaheim in August and was intrigued to learn more about the leadership industry critiquing the leadership industry.
I’d like to acknowledge the work of my colleague Professor Michael Fischer, whose article on transforming leadership development I found recently, after I’d developed my “list” above. Michael and I work together on the Leadership and Change in Healthcare Program for Melbourne Business School and it’s great working with colleagues who have similar thinking about leadership and its development.