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Charles Jennings

TULSER, 70:20:10 Institute, Duntroon Consultants


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Leadership: ditching the cult of the individual and embracing ‘communityship’


In part one of this feature, I explained why leadership development programmes as they stand today are unfit for purpose. Very little has changed in their design and content since the last financial crisis, and yet today’s world is markedly different, even to those times just a decade ago.

Below, we’ll look at how and why they’ve failed and consider some possible alternatives.

Four reasons why leadership programmes fail

Academics and others have challenged the current models and processes of leadership development over many years, suggesting that many programme-based interventions fail to produce results, even when experiential and social elements are incorporated into the structure of the formal learning design.

Researchers at McKinsey & Company identified four principle reasons why this seems to be the case.

  1. Overlooking context: leadership is highly contextual but many leadership/executive development initiatives assume ‘one-size-fits-all’, even if they are ‘tweaked’ for each organisation or leadership cohort.
  2. Decoupling reflection from real work: to be effective, it is important to tie leadership/executive development to ‘real’ work rather than removing people from the workplace. This requires more than adding some experiences to a formal programme design. It requires new designs that ‘extract’ learning from work.
  3. Underestimating mindsets: change is a challenge at the best of times, and many leadership programmes don’t focus enough on the requirement for changed behaviours and the underlying mindsets to help this happen.
  4. Failing to measure results: meaningful metrics provide insight into the value of executive development. The vast majority of leadership programmes fail to use business metrics to demonstrate value.

Leadership beyond the individual

Joseph Raelin, professor of management and OD at Northeastern University, who has studied work-based learning and development for many years, suggests leadership-as-practice (L-A-P) [Raelin J., ed. Leadership-As-Practice: Theory and Application. Routledge. 2016.] as a more useful approach for leadership development.

L-A-P views leadership as a practice and process rather than “residing in the traits and behaviors of particular individuals”.

He says: “leadership-as-practice is less about what one person thinks or does and more about what people may accomplish together. It is thus concerned with how leadership emerges and unfolds through day-to-day experience”.  

‘Communityship’ rather than leadership

Leading management development thinker and practitioner Henry Mintzberg provides one answer to the dilemma of making leadership development relevant and effective.

Mintzberg’s view is that while leadership is important, simply attempting to build individual leadership competencies is not an answer for improving organisational performance and sustainability. Other important factors are at play and need to be considered.

Creating and supporting communities requires different mindsets, different skills and different approaches than creating or maintaining hierarchies.

Mintzberg sees 'leadership' as being akin to the many-headed hydra of Greek and Roman mythology [Mintzberg H., Leadership and Communityship in Management 2008/3 Vol 33]. Effective leadership emerges from shared responsibilities among several people. ‘Distributed leadership’ is another term for this.

The strengths and abilities of the group and the specific needs within different contexts align to provide direction and execution.

Mintzberg says that calling this craft of managing and co-ordinating ‘leadership’ is inadequate. It is a collective rather than an individual responsibility and process.

It does not subordinate, but views organisations as communities of co-operation.

Leadership is then a social process, alongside other social processes that are necessary for effective organisational function.

Dismantling the ‘cult of leadership’

Mintzberg’s approach calls for the cult of leadership and of leadership development to change.

Creating and supporting communities requires different mindsets, different skills and different approaches than creating or maintaining hierarchies.

Mintzberg says: “what should disappear is the panacea that represents the individual as a solution to the problems of the world.

We are the solution to the problems of the world, you and I, each of us, by working together. The obsession with leadership is the cause of many problems facing the world”.

Co-creation is critical, but guidance is needed to avoid the tendency to revert to the ‘programme mindset’.

Fortunately, many young successful companies have a greater sense of community.

Smaller size alone often means like-minded people and values are drawn together. Flatter hierarchies tend to encourage more collaborative work.

Larger organisations have a harder task in community building. They often revert to traditional programme-focused leadership development in the hope that what hasn’t delivered in the past might just deliver if it’s tried one more time.

We also know that simply deploying social technologies is not enough.

Entire new solutions for leadership development are needed to support these new ways of working in a flattening and connected world.

Alternative solutions

At the 70:20:10 Institute we work on these problems from the perspective of the 70:20:10 methodology™ described in our book  '702010 Towards 100 Percent Performance'.

The design principles we use are focused on first obtaining a detailed picture of the difference between current and desired situations. Then it’s about developing a measurement plan, and applying agile design in the performance paradigm.

Other differences are the focus on tasks rather than behaviours and skills, and on resources rather than formal learning interventions such as coaching, case studies etc.

The principles are shown in the table below.

Solution development with this approach involves representatives of the client, spanning multiple disciplines.

Co-creation is critical, but guidance is needed to avoid the tendency to revert to the ‘programme mindset’.

An example of solution options using these design principles is shown in Figure 2.

Working from organisational results, through key processes, protocols, work instructions and critical leadership/management tasks, leadership development solutions will look very different to the traditional programmes in use in many organisations worldwide.

Systemic solutions

Leadership development is a critical activity for everyone. Organisations that get it right are setting themselves up to succeed.

Organisations that don’t get it right are not only wasting money, but also exposing themselves to poor leadership, lack of a robust talent pipeline, and a reduction in their ability to adapt and change as rapidly as needed in the new and emerging world of work.

The problems with leadership development are systemic. They need systemic solutions.

As the author and respected management thinker Charles Handy once said, “We learn by reflecting on what has happened. The process seldom works in reverse, although most educational processes assume it does.

“We hope that we can teach people how to live before they live, or how to manage before they manage”.

Interested in this topic? Read Leadership development: it’s time to ditch what you think you know.

One Response

  1. Brilliant article which
    Brilliant article which challenges our perception of leadership development and i believe provides a more practical way. Thanks.

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Charles Jennings


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