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Nigel Paine

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Leadership development: it’s time to ditch what you think you know


Right across Europe large companies are tearing up the rulebook when it comes to leadership development.

How can I make such bold and challenging statement? I have just completed a report on innovation in leadership development working with 12 large, successful European companies as partners and co-explorers. The results are fascinating.

The simple problem that all those companies face, regardless of sector, is that much of the current leadership development in place prepares leaders for world that has disappeared.

Meanwhile, there is an urgency to help leaders thrive in this uncertain, volatile, and disruptive environment in which we all operate.

It is not so much about defining a strategy and sticking to it - and telling people what their part in this could be - but more about asking for help, trying to understand what is going on, and making the best decisions in the circumstances that allow organisations to move forward.

A new set of skills

Where, in the current offerings, is the leadership development that focuses on humility, listening well, or asking brilliant and probing questions?

When do we encourage leaders to work together as a leadership cohort in order to solve each others' problems as well as their own?

Who teaches key staff to look outward, drink in the external environment, and not get bogged down in internal issues, processes and ways of thinking?

Finally, where are the leadership programmes that help the participants develop curiosity,  or fact check in a world of fake news?

If digital transformation is the driving force in an organisation, then it should define the experience for leaders.

Who helps leaders work out how they can build a personal brand and identity that can sit alongside that of the company?

This is a genuinely new environment in which to work. It is hard to survive, let alone thrive.

If organisations are going to be successful, their leadership has to be comfortable, informed and able to take the best decisions in the circumstances, as well as able to bring their teams through uncertainty.

We need passionate followers, not just order takers.

A shift in focus

The innovation in leadership project is part of EFMD’s (The European Foundation for Managment Development) member services offering.

This organisation, which is renowned for its accreditation services for business schools, takes on a role of gathering together its member companies to work on their issues and challenges, but also share what they have in common, and what they have excelled in.  

The aim is to spread the learning from one organisation to everybody in the network, and to the membership as a whole and the wider business community through publications.

The same old, same old is obsolete. We owe it to our leaders to do something that is fundamentally more useful.

Some of the ideas that emerged from the EFMD Special Interest Group will emerge, shortly, in a Global Focus journal edition dedicated to this topic.

The shift that has been tracked is not the whole answer, but it is a move in the right direction.

The trajectory of change in leadership development’s focus can be summed up in this table:  

All of these fundamental changes in approach were captured in eight succinct beliefs which all the member companies in the SIG endorsed.

They reflect the large-scale trends in leadership development and scope the shift in focus.

The eight beliefs

  1. The first belief captures the move away from orthodox courses with defined outcomes and a fixed curriculum to experiential learning, where exploration and openness define what is being practised.
  2. In that context, there is much greater emphasis on reflection, both individually and in the group to cement understanding.
  3. Leaders’ time is precious and therefore the outcomes of any development should be ambitious. The aim should be permanent behaviour change and transformation of the organisation.
  4. If digital transformation is the driving force in an organisation, then it should define the experience for leaders.
  5. The focus on merely the individual and his or her development has also proved to be inadequate as an outcome. Organisations that have made a shift to group and peer learning have also built resilience – they have attempted to create strong leadership cohort teams able and committed to work on each other’s problems.
  6. The implication is that leadership development is a continuous process, not an occasional single event. If you can build curious and open-minded leaders with a passion to learn, they will manage largely to develop themselves, and build strong peer groups.
  7. We are redefining the nature of modern organisations, driven both by technology and the demands of the external environment. As a result they are becoming less hierarchical and more diverse. Leadership has to embody these shifts, and leadership cohorts must reflect those changes.
  8. Ultimately this is about the resilience of both the organisation and the individual. There has to be a mindset change so that leaders can begin to admit what they don’t know. They must learn from failure and use the intellectual firepower of the whole organisation to deal with challenges, rather than rely on a tiny elite to run the show.

Shifting mindsets

What EFMD reveals is that there is some deep thinking going all right across Europe about the nature of leadership development.

There are now enough pointers to help everyone reading this article think again about the purpose of leadership development and the kinds of support necessary to ensure leaders can flourish.  

Great progress is being made to make leadership development more relevant.

The same old, same old is obsolete. We owe it to our leaders to do something that is fundamentally more useful, and our workforce deserves enduring organisations that are successful and that are exciting places to work.

Good leadership has to reflect current needs and solve today’s challenges – as well as being ready for those of the future.

Interested in this topic? Read Leadership: how to develop a growth mindset at work.

5 Responses

  1. I agree entirely with this
    I agree entirely with this article. We arent teaching our future leaders how to be human! How to be authentic! How to put their teams first. I have just launched a Leadership Academy and I ampleased to say- we not only encourage the use of these skills, but help our teams build on and expand them. We challenge poor behaviours, and help to build ability through emotional intelligence, questioning and listening.

  2. Nigel, a great read and one
    Nigel, a great read and one that I hope will send a few ripples around the vast pond of leaders and leadership development providers.

    I really like the comment in vbfmo’s comment, “We aren’t teaching our future leaders how to be human!” So right!

    Our programmes suggest that anyone can lead, not just those in leadership positions. Hence we encourage development programmes, for even the most junior employees, to include aspects of leadership and management.

    I believe in Emotional Intelligence based leadership and management. I also promote Altrocentric leadership and encourage people (not just those who are seen to be leaders) to understand that leadership is now all about others. We have to promote this from an early stage so when people do rise as managers/leaders they are already prepared in how best to communicate, challenge and listen to their people.

    We are also very keen on ensuring people understand that there is no one way to lead! We talk about the recipe of leadership, and all of us will do that differently but in a way best suited to us as individuals and those we communicate with. (The Social Awareness element of EI).

    Organisational culture has been shifting with speed over recent years, with very different people in employment who demand a new way of being treated! For today’s leadership and management development to give the desired success, it “must” support and encourage that new challenging and curious thinking that often ruffles feathers. Challenge is good!

    “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinions in good men is but knowledge in the making.” (John Milton).

  3. Totally agree Nigel. Lots of
    Totally agree Nigel. Lots of nails with headaches 🙂
    Experiential learning, reflection, sustainable behaviour change, and the rest.
    Cheers, Paul

  4. All good stuff Nigel, but I’m
    All good stuff Nigel, but I’m tempted to consider the Brexit issue and how it is being handled kind of reflects the bad things you are apportioning to “the old ways”!!

    In New Zealand, and perhaps because of our size we therefore do not have corporations/companies the size you have dealt with in Europe. My work has been predominantly with SMEs, and I have to say much of the proposed changes you identify have been in place for this size operation here for now many years. I would be interested to hear if this is the same for you folk on the other side?

    See, for these smaller operations, good managers/leaders have always worked on the basis that they do not know everything, so they look first within their own place. Then if the required or perceived skill/knowledge/talent is not there, they go outside. Therefore it is not at all uncommon for a manager/leader to work with someone straight off the factory floor, when contemplating new technology/systems/products/supplies. They in turn talk to their mates at smoko about what is happening, which in an almost non-academic way brings about much of what your article touches on.

    Cheers. DonR.

  5. Nigel – great article! You
    Nigel – great article! You ask “where, in the current offerings, is the leadership development that focuses on humility, listening well, or asking brilliant and probing questions?” Well without blowing my own trumpet too much, we at Axio Development have been delivering this programme for over 15 years. And it is now being recognised for exactly the areas you talk about. The traditional leadership models are, if not redundant, being superseded at a phenomenal rate. We are proud that our programme lives and breathes and changes with the times. Check it out on our website. With over 120 senior people graduating we have many examples of transformational experiences and going on to create major change and progress in their organisations.

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