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The leadership interview: John Storey


Mike Levy talks to Professor John Storey about the need for trainers and coaches to offer something more sophisticated than just a one-stop solution for leadership development.

If you offer a one-stop solution for leadership development, John Storey might have some bad news: your one-stop may soon become a no stop. But the Professor in Human Resource Management at the Open University Business School also has some words of encouragement: "There are some huge opportunities for trainers and coaches out there." That good news comes with a caveat: "What you offer might have to become a lot more sophisticated."

"There are some huge opportunities for trainers and coaches out there... What you offer might have to become a lot more sophisticated."

This year a second edition of Professor Storey's influential book, 'Leadership in Organizations' was published. It adds to a huge body of work, much of it devoted to analysing the research Storey and his colleagues are carrying out into leadership of both public and private sector organisations. Storey is currently working on research into clinical leadership within the NHS. It should make interesting reading as Storey has the reputation for being something of an iconoclast.

Says Storey, "My book is a reflection of the many conversations I have had with training purchasers in larger organisations. Over many years, I have been investigating what kind of leadership training and development they are looking for – an intelligent customer's view." One of the professor's conclusions is that small coaching and training providers are under increasing scrutiny to deliver. There is, he argues, a growing realisation among customers that the 'presenting problem' may not always be the core issue. As a consultant himself, he often gets called by management development directors asking for a training product, perhaps a package of blended learning. "This may well be what they need, but equally the issue they are facing may be deeper than the need for a leadership product," says Storey. Herein is the challenge and also the opportunity.

Storey contends that training procurers should not always believe that the solution to an organisational issue is to improve leadership skills. "Too often leadership is seen as a bit of magic, a rabbit out of the hat," says Storey. "Leadership training may well be the solution if the leader is able to identify what are (and are not) the true issues, have the energy to remove all obstacles faced and energise everyone involved." His point is that the quality of leadership may not be the deep-rooted issue and that asking for extra coaching and training may simply be like applying sticking plaster to a gaping wound.

"The answer to a problem may not always be better leadership. The root issues may lie in the culture, the relationships or governance of the organisation."

Storey continues, "Asking for extra leadership coaching and training may in fact be a way of ducking the real issues." This is both a threat and an opportunity for coaches and trainers. The latter is more likely to be open for those who are willing to challenge a potential customer and say honestly: 'Maybe leadership training is not the answer here. What's needed is much more in-depth analysis of what's going on in the organisation.'

Storey criticises much of the current focus of leadership development. "There is often an over-emphasis on looking for or nurturing exceptional skills and traits." The high price tags on senior CEOs reflects, he suggests, this over-reliance on the individual superleader who can cure all ills. He calls this 'Model 1' – nurturing leadership omniscience (which could be an illusion).

Better leadership isn't always the answer

"My book reminds readers that the answer to a problem may not always be better leadership. The root issues may lie in the culture, the relationships or governance of the organisation. In other words, a good leadership programme may be necessary but it is not sufficient." The obsession with the superleader is reflected, says Storey, in the good fortunes of headhunting companies who try to tempt some new CEO from a Fortune 500 company to 'sort things out'. "The internal leadership pool can often seem very conservative in contrast to the 'exciting' guys you can recruit externally. There is an allure in finding a saviour," observes Storey.

This 'quick-fix' approach can often extend to hiring a personal executive coach with a matching super price tag. "I have looked into what these coaches do. Mostly they seem to offer little more than personal reassurance and perhaps a spot of therapy... the coaching market is too often detached from the organisation's true needs. These may concern wider organisational improvement not merely a better trained leader."

"The days of trainers and coaches providing simple, off-the-shelf one-stop solutions are drawing to an end."

Storey believes that this quick-fix approach – perhaps a lazy one – is compounded by coaches and trainers not willing (or able) to challenge an organisation's perception of what is wrong (and what needs to be put right). "Much of the coaching industry is reactive. I can understand that – it provides a set of tools that the market asks for. But though coaching can help leaders have a better coping mechanism, it is seldom a game changer. Too rarely does the coach ask: ‘Is this organisation moving in the right direction? Are the basic assumptions it makes about the world fit for purpose? These are the kind of fundamental challenges that coaches and trainers should be offering."

The model for coaching, Storey believes, is one where intelligent providers can offer a suite of services (yes even those offering Model 1 solutions) but also those, which are wider and deeper in terms of processes and structures. "The models for doing this are there – the academics have produced robust methodologies but I am first to recognise that often we sit in our silos talking to each other. The kind of organisational analysis I am advocating is highly complex and requires skills in many disciplines. For those who can undertake this work there are huge opportunities out there. But the days of trainers and coaches providing simple, off-the-shelf one-stop solutions are drawing to an end."

Threat or opportunity? Which is it to be?

John Storey (2010) 'Leadership in Organizations: Current Issues and Key Trends', Routledge. (2nd Edition).

Mike Levy is a freelance journalist and copywriter with 20 years' experience. He is also a writing and presentations coach. He especially loves playwriting and creating resources for schools. Mike is director of Write Start. For more information go to:

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Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

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