Leadership is seen in the heat of the moment in the world of work, not in theory during an off-site course. Leadership development, therefore, must occur during business as usual, not in some simulation. In this article, John Sutherland discusses three main problems in leadership development programs and key solutions on how to solve them.
What does your business need from its leadership?
If you are like most businesses it will be some, or all, of the following:
• Hit the numbers
• Increase profitability
• Galvanise those working with them
• Deliver and develop your business plan
• Grow value through business development
• Create traction and delivery rather than drama and slippage
• Actually lead and take the business forward under their own steam
So you have read ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins and studied the ‘7 Habits’ espoused by Steven Covey. You may even have sent yourself or some of your leaders off to business school, but so far no progress. Your business has not substantially transformed. Nothing has moved the dial on net profit. Well how hard can this be? Surely there are experts on leadership who can advise you on what you need to do to transform your business. And thereby hangs a tale.
Leadership development is in urgent need of a shake up. The tried and tested approach of attending a business school to learn leadership is designed to fail, and no one in the schools is going to be the turkey that votes for Christmas by exposing this truth. Books on leadership cannot, by their nature, give you leaders who hit the numbers in your business. Fact. Innovation is required in leadership development current problems and the three key solutions I see.
PROBLEM ONE: There is no one set of universal leadership skills
Ever wondered why there are so many leadership models? Servant Leadership, Situational Leadership, Authentic Leadership, Level 5 Leadership (add your own favourite here). In addition to the famous ones there are dozens of other models put forward by management consultants and business schools. All apply in specific situations and many are well researched (within the current research paradigm) but all fail the same test: they do not understand your business context. In fact, if you parachuted any of the authors of these models in to run your business the most likely result is that they would fail miserably. You are the expert on the leadership needed in your business. You may want some help developing the leadership you know is required to deliver your business plan but you do not need someone to tell you how to run your business.
The reason why there are so many models of leadership is that the leadership required for success is strongly dependent on the context and purpose of the organisation you are leading. Leading a business focussed on manufacturing and production is, of course, very different from one focussed on gaining a return on investment as a venture capital company. Even within one sector there are differences. Leading an early stage technology start-up enterprise is very different from leading the same organisation as it goes through ramp up. Ask any investor.
PROBLEM TWO: A leader without followers is like a rudder without a boat
The well-known business schools and books fall foul of a second fallacy, that you can work on leaders in isolation from those they seek to lead. Firstly, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher learnt to her cost, as soon as you step too far beyond the purpose that your followers (her cabinet) are prepared to accept (in her European policy of the day) your leadership days are numbered. There is a connecting thread that needs to stay intact and you cannot take people where they have no wish to go. Interestingly, if you can keep the connecting thread intact you can persuade them to do all sorts of things they had no intention of doing but yank the thread too hard and it breaks – permanently. Keeping the thread vibrant and intact seems to me to be part of how you galvanise your followers, but that is another article.
Secondly, if you try using the leadership skills you developed, for example, running a large engineering operation as a managing partner in a firm of advisors you will quickly learn that the skills do not translate. In practice, you cannot develop leaders in isolation from those they seek to lead. Sending them off for a couple of months to a business school disconnects them from the very context they have to perform in. Leadership is seen in the heat of the moment in the world of work, not in theory during an off-site course. Leadership development, therefore, must occur during business as usual in the real world of work, not in some simulation. In fact, in my understanding, leadership is a behaviour that is only exhibited in a context. It is a behaviour that emerges between people and, in practice, the actual leader in a group may revolve rapidly as the task goes through its project life cycle phases from inception through design, delivery and review.
Donna Ladkin’s map of leadership is helpful here (figure below) showing how leadership is nested both in purpose and context of an organisation and in the nature of those you are hoping will follow your lead. (Source: Rethinking Leadership, by Donna Ladkin, Edward Elgar Publishing 2010)
PROBLEM THREE: Telling people how to lead makes followers not leaders
Any book or leadership school course that thinks it has worked out the answer to ‘how you should lead’ runs the risk of turning its audience into followers, not leaders. You can’t create leaders by telling them what to do. Think about it. Instead you have to treat them as leaders from the outset and ask them to identify the areas where leadership needs developing. This may seem obvious with hindsight but the vast majority of leadership courses and books are based on the idea that the course organisers or book author know what you should do. The best such approaches can ever hope for is to make carbon copies of past leaders, and frankly copying someone else’s approach is not my idea of leadership. Leaders have to lead their own leadership development. Obvious really.
Most training programmes attempt to dictate not only the frame of reference but also the content of the learning for their participants. They are hierarchical. And most participants expect there to be a structured programme and a model so that they know what they are going to get and can feel uncomfortable if there is a lack of clarity. Whilst this can work for skills training at the management level it cannot work as a method for developing leaders. There needs to be at least a level of collaboration between participants and course providers or, better still, the direction setting needs to be done by the participants.
Business schools and business books have their place, of course. They are great for developing individuals and enhancing their CVs. But they can never get to grips with what your specific organisation needs. If you want to develop your business, rather than a few future leaders, you need to focus your development activity in-house and run a bespoke programme where you set the focus.
So how do you develop leadership that hits the numbers?
Here are our top three solutions.
SOLUTION ONE: Develop a coherent sense of direction
The first thing you need is a strongly coherent sense of direction. In my 22 years of working with senior management teams, both assessing them (in management due diligence processes for the venture capital community) and developing them, I have learnt that, after the quality of the CEO/President, the single most important factor is to have coherent direction. This means that no matter who you ask and how you ask it, you get the same answer back about what it is you are hell bent on achieving as an organisation. This is the laser like focus of energy within your organisation that means you can punch through all the obstacles the market and your competitors will throw at you. And they will.
SOLUTION TWO: Clarify the leadership skills you need to achieve your business plan
Once you have a coherent sense of direction you are ready to ask the obvious question. What leadership skills do we need to achieve our vision and strategy? Where should we focus our attention and resources? As a leader this means you are calling the shots on where you need to focus, not asking someone who does not understand your business and could not run it to tell you where your leaders should focus.
SOLUTION THREE: Run your leadership programme during business as usual
Thirdly, as far as you can, run your leadership development work to support and facilitate the work that needs to happen in order to deliver your business plan. Using leadership development time to strengthen people working on strategic projects works really well. These are the heat of the moment issues, and serve to ensure that your leaders are developing their skills with the people they need to lead, not in isolation. Use leadership development to serve your business, rather than being the customer of the leadership programme’s clever ideas about whichever model of leadership they espouse.
The Leadership Development industry needs, in our view, to learn how to serve its customer, the real leaders. That is the key innovation required in the sector.
About the Author
John Sutherland is the managing director of Strategic Resource and the Leadership Initiative. Strategic Resource is a leading provider of management due diligence. The Leadership Initiative provides an international innovative approach to developing leadership within organisations during business as usual.