The problem with leadership development

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A high performing culture based on people, purpose and collaboration will reinforce and support leaders and employees

Research shows that the investment in and awareness of leadership development and its importance have increased significantly in recent decades. Despite this, tangible progress has been patchy.

It can be argued that such a disparity becomes less of a surprise if one analyses data on organisational climate compared with that for individuals, and explores the mindsets that underpin common approaches to organisational management.

As part of my research I collected data from nearly 500 respondents at a range of organisations. The data show a sharp contrast between individual and organisational development. Respondents were asked the extent to which they agreed with 120 questions embedded in a six-box leadership diagnostic tool developed to help organisations implement new leadership paradigm in practice. The six boxes are: culture, relationships, individuals, strategy, systems and resources. While the majority of questions focus on organisational aspects, some questions within the individuals box are focused on individual traits. The tool uses a six-point Likert scale and displays the highest and lowest scoring questions in each of the six boxes on the scale 0%-100%.

The highest scores are relatively high, and nearly all of them pertain to individual characteristics. Of the seven highest scores six relate to individuals or relationships, and only one to culture.

Examples of the highest scored statements include: ‘my work gives me purpose’ (individuals box); ‘I regularly improve my skills’ (individuals); ‘I choose my words carefully to motivate people’ (individuals); ‘I interact with different teams’ (relationships); and ‘accountability is part of our culture’ (culture).

For the lowest eight scores none related to individuals or relationships – all were matters of strategy or organisational culture. For example: ‘budgets are slightly controlled’ (resources); ‘employees are stressed’ (culture); ‘command and control is part of our culture’ (culture); ‘there are gaps between our stated and our realised objectives’ (strategy); and ‘when organisational problems arise micro-management is the first response’ (strategy).

These findings are consistent with others I have collated and analysed in recent years, discussed in much detail in my book The Management Shift.

The pattern that emerges is that, in many examples, individual senior managers are encouraged to be self-aware and to understand the importance of team-building and engagement only to be reinserted into a corporate environment where the rules allow for little autonomy, financial controls prevent innovation, and creativity is not encouraged.

This reflects lack of a wider ideological renewal to support leadership development, and the need to implement new leadership paradigm in practice.

The implications are considerable. They imply that the limited and patchy progress towards implementing high-achieving, highly engaged workplaces is not an accident, nor a failing of individual leaders, but rather a failure to renew the business model in a more comprehensive way; or to challenge the mindsets that underpin it. It also calls into question the compartmentalisation of much business analysis and management training.

Individual development and organisational design are mutually reinforcing. Highly developed leaders with good awareness of high performing organisational cultures will spread ripples that will in time shift that culture to a higher level. At the same time, a high performing culture based on people, purpose and collaboration will reinforce and support leaders and employees in improving their engagement and performance. After all, there is no point investing a lot of money in developing authentic leaders if they are sent back to a broken and dehumanised system.

Vlatka Hlupic is CEO of The Management Shift and professor of business and management at the University of Westminster

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