Why waste your money on leadership development?


Would you rather be led by, Barack Obama or Donald J Trump? I can pretty much guess the answer for most of you! So what is it that attracts you to one, and repulses you from the other? Your immediate visceral reaction is a lot to do with apparent personality, manifested through the media: the thoughtful versus the bully; the calm versus the brash; the sympathetic versus ego driven. I could go on!

In many ways, this conversation is the exact opposite of the one we should be having about leadership development. It implies the leadership is essentially personality-based, that there is very little we can do to make the bully more sympathetic, or to turn brash into thoughtfulness. We make instant decisions about who we would like to be led by, and our actual managers are allocated by the luck of the draw. We can do nothing. But that is a pretty bleak picture, but one that is common and driven by lived experience. I have yet to meet a single person who has never encountered poor leadership, and I have met many who have had absolutely terrible experiences at the hands of the incompetent, the ego-driven or just plain nasty people. Stick them on traditional leadership programmes and they may return reinvigorated, but behave identically to the way they were before. No wonder the greatest cynicism around learning and development is reserved for leadership programmes.I want you to consider five points that might help you change your mind. The first is that we should forget about developing leaders, and focus instead on developing leadership. There are only three different letters in those two words: leaders and leadership but they encompass a completely different worldview. Leadership is owned by the whole organisation, it is about frameworks and behaviours that are driven across the whole company, not a focus on an individual. Leadership is a philosophy and approach that involves everybody. Most people who are leaders are also led. At the very heart of an organisation are the people who do not necessarily have direct reports, but impact all of those around them as well as customers. These people need to be good followers, and they, too, need to manage themselves, and be driven by codes of behaviour and values that determine what they do and how they think about their role.Secondly, we all have to believe that we can eradicate appalling leadership by applying a consistent framework across the whole organisation that has no exceptions from top to bottom. You cannot have a well-led organisation with some people who do the job brilliantly, and others do it hardly at all. And if there are no exceptions, there have to be sanctions. Every single person from the CEO down has to realise that their behaviour impacts on everyone around them, and they know what they should do and how they should do it. I hope you can see from just these few words, that what I’m proposing is much more complicated than simply selecting a few individuals and sticking them on a course, fingers crossed, and hoping for the best! Sticking plasters do not work; and certainly not in something as important as leadership development.Thirdly, creating great leadership throughout an organisation is a long-term commitment that does not change just because times get hard, or tough choices have to be made. it is a philosophy and approach that is consistent hard work from recruitment through to retirement. The rewards are clear: hyperactivity, better engaged workforce, more innovation and hugely more commitment.

Behind all of that is one simple but enormously complex word: trust. Good leadership emerges from a culture of trust, trust is the fundamental building block of good leadership. And as we know, trust is hard to build, but very easy to destroy. Can you imagine being led well, by someone that you did not trust. It is inconceivable.Fourthly, the idea that great leaders can thrive in toxic organisations, is as mythical as imagining that one great leader can fix a terrible environment. Poor leaders are attracted to toxic organisations in the same way the good leaders are repelled. Therefore, the idea that ignoring leadership development, makes very little difference in terms of overall experience, is false. It is only by constantly keeping leadership under review that consistent leadership survives. This includes not just sanctions for poor leadership but the reward for good leadership. In other words there have to be significant incentives to encourage people to put in a lot of effort and hard work into leading well, paying attention to others, and helping the organisation become more effective.Finally, the main thing that good leadership development does, is raise the level of debate about what works and does not. It turns everybody into conscious leaders, and demands core behavioursthat may come easily to some people and be a struggle for others. The best leaders spend time reflecting on their own leadership, consulting others on how well they do, and making attempts to get better week-on-week, month-on-month, and year-on-year. Those kind of leaders see leadership as a collective responsibility that requires discussion and sharing of issues. It leads to the establishment of higher and higher standards, that are agreed and consistently acted upon. When it is expressed like this, it seems easy, but it is hard to create a space to focus on leadershipduring a busy working week, where many other responsibilities impinge. But that is what the right leadership programmes do, they ensure that leadership is taken seriously, leadership is owned across the organisation, and leadership is implemented consistently. There are lots of key stages for building good leadership development; far more than I can share in this short article. If you want to debate any of the issues raised here, come to my session in the Learning Technologies conference at Olympia on February 1st and 2nd. If you are intrigued and want to know a lot more, then read my new book called Building Leadership Development Programmes that Work.

It is published by Kogan Page, and if you buy it from their website, and add the code ”FRIENDSOFNIGEL” at checkout, you will get a 20% discount, and free postage andpacking. We need to talk more about leadership, and we should engage more around the issues and the significant consequences of poor leadership. I hope this article get you moving in this direction.


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