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Nigel Paine

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Is leadership development broken?

The leadership development industry is rife with generic courses that show little evidence of changing behaviours. So what's the solution? Nigel Paine urges us to ditch the courses and experiment with collective decision making and extended conversation.
metal bridge near boat during daytime. Leadership development is broken.

I have often been deeply concerned about the effectiveness of many leadership development programmes. It's not that they are uninteresting or lack fascination. The real issue is the lack of lasting behaviour change that should be the hallmark of such programmes.

I wrote a book on this a few years ago and discovered, in the research process, that leadership development without context, based on generalisations and assumptions about what it is like to lead or be led in your organisation, is likely to make little enduring impact. So what does work then? 

All scorn, no solutions

There are books castigating the current state of leadership development, such as ‘The End of Leadership’ by Harvard Professor Barbara Kellerman or ‘Leadership BS’ by the Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer. Their words about leadership development are excoriating. Pfeffer claims: “So much of the conventional wisdom about leadership and so much of the activity aimed at developing leaders do not fit the facts on the ground.”

They both make powerful cases outlining what is wrong with leadership development’s “sugar-laced toxic potions,” according to Pfeffer. Kellerman asks what has gone wrong: “Why has the leadership industry, for all its apparent successes, failed on so many levels?” Their arguments are impressive, but both are less verbose about what you need to do to fix the leadership industry and make leadership more human-centred and impactful.

We don’t need more context-free courses that promise transformation in ‘x’ days for a fee

Leadership development: It’s all about context

We don’t need more context-free courses that promise transformation in ‘x’ days for a fee, but we do need leaders to be given appropriate tools to explore the context of their own leadership, and that takes account of the organisations they work for.

We need to help them make decisions by engaging with their own specific challenges. This could transform those organisations and the people who work in them.

Experimenting with collective leadership activity

One idea is to give leaders permission to work together on their own wicked problems. In this scenario, they wouldn’t be given experts who tell them what to do, but resources that will make them think differently about the problems faced by the whole organisation. This process will help them to scaffold solutions that can be tested and improved through iteration after iteration.

When working on solutions, they make decisions that commit the entire leadership cohort to collective and supported activity. This will require behaviour change, and it will require the whole team to agree and stick to the best action in the circumstances.

If it proves unsuccessful, the team will extract the elements that worked and build on them to have another go at the problem.

Give leaders permission to work together on their own wicked problems

The net impact of this should be to turn individuals asking for help into teams defining what needs to be done collectively, and then agreeing to hold each other accountable for implementing those collective decisions.

If an entire leadership cadre makes a collective decision and it is logged, then there is some ethical pressure to be part of the process and to follow the agreed-upon behavioural guidelines to align with the other leaders.

Ditch the courses and encourage conversation 

I am not proposing another leadership course. It is more of an extended conversation! And one dominated and returned regularly to the context that leaders find themselves in.

Here are my additional thoughts on how this experiment would work:

  • Some ideas and proposals will work and others will need to be modified as needs change and crises emerge
  • With regular (monthly) interactions, participants can test and debate ideas with backup and confidence, knowing that no one is telling them what to do or how to do it
  • There’s no space for dogmatic answers here - only tools, conversation and questions that will help participants come to their own conclusions
  • This must stretch over a long period (12 months) to enable the group to continue side conversations outside the formal sessions, allowing an informal layer of insight to be added for every participant’s benefit.

Conversations and tools can be focused on specific leadership topics to help give direction

These topics could include:

  • High-level problem solving
  • Creating more intrinsically meaningful work environments
  • Personal effectiveness
  • Risk management and change
  • Organisational learning, systems thinking, and action learning

Whatever the outcomes, having hours of deep conversation about the challenges that you and your organisation face and what good leadership looks like in your context will reset your ambitions and make your organisation more human-centred and resilient. The experiment is worth it just for that!

Learn more about Nigel Paine’s approach to leadership development.

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