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The shifting landscape of leadership


Professor Kim Turnbull James talks to Mike Levy about a key shift in the landscape to focusing on leadership rather than leaders.

Do we need heroes? Should our leaders be like Barak Obama? Kim Turnbull James has her doubts, she believes that we are seeing some seismic shifts in the way leadership is developed. As director of the Centre for Executive Learning and Leadership, she is well placed to read the runes. In her latest book *, she and Donna Ladkin write of challenging the old 'deficit model' of leadership development. Put simply, this is an individualistic view that a leader has some skill or competence shortcoming (as measured against some normative notions). The outcome is that leadership learning focuses on personal competencies, behaviour, personal  motives, cognitive preferences and so on. This 'deficit' approach is taken up by systems such as Myers Briggs and Bass's transformational leadership frameworks.

"Traditionally, we have looked at portraits of leaders. Now we have instead to admire the landscapes it’s not just about the individual leaders but what is going on in the background."

Whilst Turnbull James is quick to point out that such competency-based work is still valid it is by no means the whole story and times are very definitely changing. She asserts that there are limitations to this deficit approach. She argues that this approach may stifle some of the traditions of a 'good education' such as the ability to think and understand principles which can be applied in a wide variety of situations. She says that even where a deficit-reduction programme involves peer feedback or action planning, the consequent development activity is often largely  contextual. She believes that in the new 21st century models, leadership is increasingly contextual. In other words pre-packaged development systems are insufficient in dealing with the specific context in which leaders operate: team, strategic or operational leadership, public or private sector, UK or global: context is king.

Turnbull James believes that many coaches and trainers have not picked up some of these straws in the leadership wind. They are sticking to old formulas. She writes, "...leadership development practitioners can be often resistant to the notion they are presenting a programme in this (i.e. deficit model)  mode.  They often stress that they are highly flexible and will  digress from the script. They want to meet the learner's needs. But they are often delivering a programme booked long before the learners arrive..." She is not arguing against this mode of learning but that it is not the only approach.

A shifting landscape

A key shift in this new century, says Turnbull James, is the focus on leadership rather than leaders. The traditional model of heroic leadership is melting away as shown by the leaders who attend her courses at Cranfield.  Says Turnbull James, "People are looking for more leaders in more places in the organisation. Some are tasked with getting a more collective view of leadership where groups work across organisational boundaries and silos. They are asked to look at a whole-organisational picture rather than the one area they represent.  All this means that people are starting to think of leadership in very different ways. We are currently working on the leadership in context area. There really are some very interesting  questions being asked about leadership in our century. We are certainly at a turning point."

The shift away from leaders to leadership takes us away from thinking about individual competencies towards examining organisational practices – how do we create a sense of purpose and direction? How do we get all the organisational objectives lined up with that direction and ensure that people are committed to it? "There is no doubt," says Turnbull James, "that the landscape of leadership is changing." She has a nice analogy imagining a leadership art gallery, "We traditionally have looked at portraits of leaders. Now we have instead to admire the landscapes – it’s not just about the individual leaders but what is going on in the background."

"The modern world demands more of a 'we' approach than an 'I' approach."

None of this precludes the need for leaders to attend to any shortcomings in their competency. But according to Turnbull James, these are necessary but not sufficient these days. "We need to think how people in leadership roles (my italics) need to work with others, understand what the organisational challenges are that might require radical re-thinking and re-positioning, what are the barriers preventing the organisation from achieving its goals and objectives. This is a very different way of thinking about leadership with serious implications for leadership development."

Where have these changes in leadership development coming from? "We are doing work on shared and distributed leadership. We can see the antecedents going back to the middle of the last century. Many of the ideas have been sidelined by the 'heroic' models of leadership. I am not saying these are wrong but that we have to think of other ways of looking at leadership.  The idea that one person can inspire and direct a global 24/7 business operating across time zones and languages is not really adequate." Her view is that  now it is more about how those in leadership roles can generate collaborative practices, can distribute leadership tasks and yet provide an overarching sense of organisational direction. "This can happen in multiple ways and not just in the actions of a single leader," says Turnbull James. She is not arguing for an organisation simply to have lots of leaders but for those in leadership roles to fully understand how the whole complex organisation system works. "The modern world demands more of a 'we' approach than an 'I' approach," she contends.

The recent banking crisis should have opened people's eyes to how systems interact. "People should realise that what you do, the decisions you take, are part of a much wider system. Things that happen way outside of our area of influence, have an impact on our organisation. This must make us think about deep connections and the systemic nature of an organisation. Armed with this knowledge, you can stop thinking that one person can save the day." It seems that the salvation in this century will not come from Superwoman but a more broadly educated,  collaboratively nuanced team player who can fathom the great complexities of the 21st century organisation. Step aside Barak Obama.

* 'Leadership Learning, Knowledge into Action'  ed. Kim Turnbull James and James Collins, (Palgrave Macmillan 2008).

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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