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Nigel Paine

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Learning Technologies 2017: Why waste your money on leadership development?


Ahead of the Learning Technologies 2017 conference on 1st & 2nd February, we thought we'd get a sneak peek at one of the sessions to give us a taste of what to expect from the packed 2 day agenda. Let us know what you're most looking forward to from the conference in the comments below, or feel free to share your review of the exhibition and conference in our Blogs section.

Who would you rather be led by: Barrack 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.

Everybody's responsibility

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.

Leadership is a philosophy and approach that involves everybody.

Secondly, we all ought 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 must be sanctions. Every single person from the CEO down has to realise that their behaviour impacts on everyone around them.

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.

Creating the right environment

Thirdly, creating great leadership throughout an organisation is a long-term commitment that does not change just because times get hard, or tough choices need to be made. It is a philosophy and approach that is consistent hard work, from recruitment through to retirement. The rewards are clear: hyperactivity, a better engaged workforce, more innovation and much 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.

Poor leaders are attracted to toxic organisations in the same way the good leaders are repelled.

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 rewards for good leadership. In other words, there have to be significant incentives to encourage people to put a lot of effort and hard work into leading well, paying attention to others, and helping the organisation become more effective.

Time for reflection

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 behaviours that 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.

The best leaders spend time reflecting on their own leadership, consulting others on how well they do, and making attempts to get better

When it is expressed like this, it seems easy, but it is hard to create a space to focus on leadership during 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, that 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. 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.

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 and packing.

7 Responses

  1. Nice article, Nigel. You make
    Nice article, Nigel. You make many good points about the nature of leadership which differentiate between leadership as a systemic flow and what is usually understood as leadership as what leaders do. I would like to ban the word “leader” because it assigns everyone else to be a follower and denies the contribution that everyone else makes to organisational success.

    I too am interested in the helping people grasp a new understanding of leadership that is superseding the top-down authoritative perspective, enabling people to engage and self-organise as high-performance teams.
    Leadership as a system – leadership as flow in which all participate – leadership as consciousness – this is something to be excited about in these troubled times.

    Sadly I cannot attend your session at Olympia but I’ll look out for your book.

    regards, John Varney

    1. Thank you John for your
      Thank you John for your comments. I appreciate them. My view is that leadership has to be a philosophy and approach that works right through an organisation. In that sense everyone is a leader and demonstrates their leadership, and everyone is also a follower and knows how to work effectively with everyone else. At a fundamental level, leadership of self is the basic building block. If you cannot control yourself you will spread discord and deliver poor customer experience and be a poor follower too.

  2. Good points, Nigel. Sadly,
    Good points, Nigel. Sadly, the record of leadership development is one of negligible or negative long term effects. The reason is that leadership itself is wildly misunderstood by the leadership industry because it studies leaders and not followers, what they follow and thus why they react the way they do to what management does and does not do. Current leadership leaves a huge amount of human performance on the table. Eschewing the leadership industry’s methods and understanding exactly what leadership is allowed me to achieve 300%+ performance gains across the entire workforce.

    I wish you well. Best regards, Ben

    1. Ben I would like to know more
      Ben I would like to know more about what you have achieved, and what industry you work in. But I do fundamentally agree that the model and approach of many in leadership development is about short term telling and not long-term doing. It over-sells to claim that a few days in a classroom is all that anyone needs. It should be a long-term and holistic philosophy and approach and I guess that is what you are doing. Congratulations.

      1. Thanks for the question,
        Thanks for the question, Nigel. You are rare. My past, 26 years naval officer out of USNA, then electric utility New York City. I was top-down command and control for my first 12 years (served on ships at sea) – considered one of the very best, promoted early and assigned positions higher than my rank. During those years I tried hard to learn how to be a great leader of men – studied management, leadership, history of man, religions, psychology, psychiatry, the bible, and even how the brain works. Except for the bible, little help. Although I was achieving things others could not do, I had to admit I was unable to significantly raise the performance of my middle and worst performers. They were scared of me while my best people loved me because I gave them whatever they needed. I did not treat middle and lower performers that way. After these first 12 years, at a post-graduate computer degree program I read a very large book on Organizational Behavior. It had one conclusion from its many case studies. That workers were the sun and management was the earth rotating around the sun dependent on heat from the sun. Having spent my first 12 years moving at high speed to find things what were wrong or not being done, giving orders to change that, and then following up to ensure proper actions, I had not truly listened to anyone but my best people. So if they were really so important I should start listening to them, one on one and in groups. I then took over a destroyer escort considered one of the worst ships and started listening. The more I listened and responded appropriately, the better the crew performed. In just 18 months the crew took the ship from being one of the worst to one of the very best and at that point I did not need to give hardly any orders. Unfortunately, one year after I moved to a new position as in charge of the nuclear reactor plants of the carrier NIMITZ, I was informed that my ship had returned back to how it was when I first assumed command. I was mad at myself for having created house of cards. Over the next 6 years I turned around a nuclear-powered cruiser (the crew is wrecking the ship Admiral Rickover told me so I had better change that quickly) and pretty well decided how to lead people to be strong and independent as well as highly proficient so that they would never follow bad leadership as had happened to the destroyer escort. I proved that skill in turning around New York City’s largest powerhouse (the union must be in charge because management is not) in 2 1/2 years and after by turning around a 1300 person unionized group charged with overhauling the boilers, turbines, and major auxiliaries of the company powerhouses (your customers hate you so either get rid of it or fix it, your choice). In three years our customers came to love us and our competitors refused to bid on any project we bid on because we always came in at less than 50% of their bid, sometimes lower. What I became able to do was to create a highly motivated, highly committed, fully engaged workforce of Superstars where peer pressure changed from “do what you must to survive” to “don’t expect us to pick up after you”. (The possible performance gains match what Stephen Covey told us in his book, 500% – not 5% or 50% but 500%.) In the process, I came to understand the science of people and why they react the way they do to what management does and does not do. I know why certain actions are right and all the rest are either plain wrong or not as good as concerns motivation, innovation, retention, leadership, commitment, engagement, morale, confidence, competence, fairness, ethics, etcetera, etcetera. I am now trying to spread my knowledge first by writing a book (done but it is too packed with knowledge) and consulting to whoever needs it. We are in the process of producing an online course in leadership, a subject the industry does not understand. I have provided quite a bit of knowledge on my website. This is a subject that can be taught, but better to coach it since results come very quickly if the rules are followed. Hope this helps.

        1. Hi Ben,
          Hi Ben,
          Thank you for your comments; if you wanted to write something for the site as a case study or reflection on your experiences with leadership I think that would be received very well by our readers. I am trying to make the site more inclusive and reflective of our community, and it would be a shame to have your experiences remain in comments where fewer people will see them.
          Let me know what you think, I’m happy to advise and help with anything you’d like to contribute.
          Best wishes,
          Shonette ([email protected])
          Deputy Editor

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