Why leadership development programs need a re-think

4 minute read

Let’s be clear – the development of leaders and change in organizations is not easy work. Development is often non-linear, doesn’t always produce clearly visible results, and often unfolds over a substantial period of time (as opposed to in single moments). Author and leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith identifies a key challenge (or barrier), often derailing development: “Many leadership programs are based on the faulty assumption, that if we show people what to do, they can automatically do it.”  However, Pfeffer and Sutton’s Knowing-Doing Gap indicates that knowing “what” good leadership looks like, and being able to put it into practice are two different things, i.e. talking about something doesn’t equate to competence. The Stanford researchers note that the gap between talking and actually doing oftentimes persists because talk and action tend to be equated with one another. This is because talk can be assessed immediately in terms of quantity and quality, whereas the ability to get things done (or to “walk the talk”) requires a longer timeframe and more robust measurement. 

In terms of the trajectory of traditional leadership development programs, the field has arrived at a critical point whereby organizations and leaders are demanding advanced and customized solutions that provide tangible value. The good news is there is clear evidence that leadership development is possible and can have lasting results when there is a direct focus on skills, behaviours and competencies. The most current research confirms our view that the focus needs to shift to teaching high-potential and emerging leaders how to develop, and to take into account all the factors that surround their development. “One-size fits all” approaches, while scalable, can gloss over important contextual factors unique to the organization yet critical to leader development and success, and often lack long-term evidence of growth or transformation.
 
In 2017, MIT wrote about “Leadership Development’s Epic Fail”, noting that “most programs have a critical weakness – they view leaders as sets of competencies, not individuals”, ultimately ignoring important idiosyncrasies of both leaders and organizations. What’s worse is that there is little evidence that many of these programs work; Kellerman from Harvard and Pfeffer from Stanford note that “the development market is filled with fads – slick behavioural models and fun, engaging tools – that don’t really move the needle.” This paradigm takes the view that all leaders have to do to succeed is perform at the top in a generalized competency model, which while important, ignores the scientific discipline around individualization and contextualization (e.g. subordinate perceptions, relationship to organizational outcomes, or self-awareness). McNulty from MIT, Petrie from the Center for Creative Leadership, and many others note that there two major drivers affecting the pace of change in the field of leadership:

  1. The increased complexity of the environment in which leaders must lead (notably but not exclusively, information overload, the dissolving of traditional organizational boundaries, changing generational perceptions, increased globalization and new technologies and innovation).
  2. Our increased understanding of how humans think and act, being driving by psychology and neuroscience advancements, behavioural economics, and analytics. “Great Man” theory - brought forward by Thomas Carlyle - assumed that people needed to change to emulate a leadership prototype, but we now know there are multiple types of successful leaders, behaviours, and skillsets. Performance is complex, much like great athletes don’t always make the best coaches: “Any approach that tries to reduce the complexities of leadership to a series of standard boxes to be ticked or traits to be emulated will have little enduring impact."
Leading With a Compass, Not a Map

At Viewpoint, our research and experiences with leaders in assessment, identification, and development, have helped shape our view that leaders are complex, multi-faceted individuals, and their behaviours and development all occur within a context. The context of ever-changing circumstances (be it the people or environment) means that we can’t rely on a single leadership “blueprint” – we need to reimagine how people learn and what drives lasting change. In a sense, we need to focus on teaching leaders how to be continuously learning and adapting to changing circumstances, and not teaching them material that will become stale and outdated. Our research has led us to distill leadership development into two key principles, that, when taken into consideration when designing programs and interventions, will actually “move the needle”:
 
  1. Great programs will support contextualized leadership development, teaching leaders how to adapt, evolve, and handle ambiguity in their organizations. At Viewpoint, we believe in a hybrid approach to development - our assessment efforts start with a general competency model that is always customized to an organization and its unique leadership culture/needs. 

  2. Lasting, transformative leadership change will be grounded in individual leader's strategic self-awareness, and continuously enabled by self-accountability and evidence-based processes of change (e.g. goal-setting theory). Leaders will need to take a hands-on approach to their development, integrating their own values and principles, and actively experimenting with evidence-based behaviours that lead to stronger performance.

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This work has been funded by Viewpoint Capital Corporation.