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Leadership development takes centre stage at HRD 2009


LeadersLeadership and leadership development dominated the HRD conference and exhibition last week. Neil Davey reports back on why it has become the burning issue - and what the speakers had to say about it.

Earlier this year, CIPD research indicated that the vast majority of training managers believe that the development of leadership is the most important skill to embed in UK organisations to help them perform during the recession. Reflecting this, the topics of leadership and leadership development were a strong presence on this year’s HRD conference & exhibition programme.

Introducing a seminar on developing tomorrow’s leaders, Vanessa Robinson, head of operations, research and practice, at CIPD, said: “Everyone is aware of the bad economic climate at the moment and it is at times like these that performance becomes particularly important. And if you talk about performance, the strategic role that leaders play in achieving organisational performance is particularly key.”

Elsewhere, the CIPD’s Steve Crabb chaired a masterclass re-examining our image of the ideal business leader featuring a panel including the likes of Common Purpose chief executive Julia Middleton. CIPD president Vicky Wright hosted a session designed to identify the characteristics of the leaders most likely to succeed, in a seminar devoted to developing the strategic capability of leaders. And in the workshops, sessions invited attendees to decide if their talent has the ability to lead, providing demonstrations of assessing leadership potential.

"Effective leadership is about dedication to deliver, the ability to engage with individuals and the ability to engage with teams. And so leadership development should focus on this."

Doug Strycharczyk, managing director, AQR Ltd

Leadership - whether its importance to negotiating the recession or the development of leaders – was on the lips of everyone.

“Complex times require complex leaders – leaders who can take balanced judgements around emerging issues where the data is either sparse or contradictory. And some of these judgements that leaders take can be really challenging,” said David Fairhurst, senior vice president and chief people officer at McDonald’s Restaurants. “There is clearly a need for a structured approach to resolving the range of dilemmas that face our organsiation in order that our business leaders can take balanced sensible decisions about all of the complex issues they are facing.”

Meeting these requirements, according to Fons Trompenaars, founder of Trompenaars Hampden-Turner, is ‘servant leadership’ – a model that Ken Blanchard recently lauded in an interview with TrainingZone. Servant leaders, Trompenaar explained, have the propensity and competence to help organisations and its teams reconcile dilemmas for better performance.

And whilst conceding that there is no toolkit for servant leadership, he proceeded to outline the model to a captivated audience, and how it can reconcile a number of tricky dilemmas facing leaders. One such dilemma was how to encourage individual achievements without creating selfish individuals at the expense of the team, or teams that work well but lack individual creativity. The solution for a servant leader, he explained, would be to reward teams for individual creativity, and reward individuals for team work. With advocates such as Blanchard and Trompenaars, we can expect to hear a great deal more about servant leadership in the coming months.

Core themes of leadership

But leadership models in themselves are not necessarily the solution. Indeed, as highlighted during a later session, despite the fact that employers are prioritising leadership training to survive the recession, the plethora of leadership models has created some confusion, whilst the difficulties related to measuring leadership have muddied the waters further. Nevertheless, Doug Strycharczyk, managing director of AQR Ltd, proposed that his research over the past four years has not only identified the common core themes of leadership, but also three global scales of effectiveness.

“The work stemmed from an discussion with one of the directors of the ILM who remarked that a review of leadership courses around the world in 2005 revealed that it was looking at 50 different leadership models. The second question was that they all seemed to work to some extent to how were they related and was there actually an overarching leadership model? And then the final question was, could we measure leadership?”

"Complex times require complex leaders – leaders who can take balanced judgements around emerging issues where the data is either sparse or contradictory."

David Fairhurst, senior vice president and chief people officer, McDonald’s Restaurants

After studying major leadership models around the globe, this work identified six common core themes across the 50 or so different models in existence. Testing these themes across 1,500 managers in 50 organisations only seemed to confirm their presence according to Strycharczyk.

These were: scales ranging from leaders who put task first to leaders who put people first; ranging from flexible to dogmatic; from decentralised to centralised (“the extent to which work had to go through them – the extent to which they had to have control”); emphasising reward to emphasising punishment; from focusing more on the means or more on the end (“what will the leader do to reach the goal”); and from structured to organic.

Importantly, the findings suggested that there was no right or wrong way to be placed along these scales, and no single unique profile which was best in all situations. According to Strycharczyk, an interesting byproduct of this research (“almost a penicilin of HR,” he said) was that they were able to develop a reliable psychological measurement of leadership. Based on the years of research, this global scale states that the most effective leaders possess:

  • Determination to deliver (“the more determination to deliver, the more likely it is that people will follow that leader”)

  • The ability to engage with individuals

  • The ability to engage with teams (“the people who could not just engage with the teams but also see the teams within the organisation – that includes the cross functional teams within an organisation. Everbody can spot the accounts department because they all sit together. But members of an organisation are connected to different people through cross functional networks in an organisation and these cross functional teams are as important to the performance of an organisation as the functional teams. And the most effective leaders can not only spot those teams but also engage with them.”)

Critically, the higher someone scores on these, the more likely they are to be an effective leader according to Strycharczyk. “This enables us to understand that there are different levels of leadership,” he told the audience. “So it is possible to be a good leader, an effective leader, simply by having determination to deliver. But you would be a more effective leader by also having the ability to either engage with individuals or engage with teams. And it is possible to be a highly effective leader with all three.”

What this emphasises, he said, was that great leaders aren’t born – they’re made. And this only reinforces the importance of L&D in the evolution of our present and future leaders.

“The outcome of our work is that there are an awful lot of leadership models around,” he concluded. “But most of them are just reinventions of the same wheel. We think we’ve found the macro model. The global scale represents what effective leadership is about – dedication to deliver, the ability to engage with individuals and the ability to engage with teams. And so leadership development should focus on this.”


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