The effectiveness of leadership development
How effective is leadership development? Some things to consider:
- Prior to the economic crash, many of the investment banks that indulged in dubious behaviours, were lauded for their leadership development programmes.
- Regularly we heard commentators in the media reference a lack of leadership, and with recent scandals in politics (such as the expenses scandal) or companies (banks, media, etc), one can come to the conclusion that these commentaries have some merit.
- One, of the many, recent surveys on trust in leadership in organisations, found that only 7% of employees trust their organisation’s leadership.
I could add more bullets to the list, but I think by now you’ve understood my point. Organisations have collectively spent over many decades billions on leadership development, and that collective spend has produced the kinds of results we see above. That should cause us to pause and think.
Oh yes, I know that many people report that they get value from the programmes and the ‘happy sheets’ used in many organisations as a way of measuring success, usually report nice things (when this doesn’t happen the programme or facilitators are changed), but somehow this doesn’t translate into a significant change in leadership.
However, if we look more closely we see that ‘happy sheets’ have long been understood to be an ineffective way to measure the impact of programmes. Longer-term studies are often flawed with an over-reliance on emailing large numbers of people with a questionnaire, where generally only those with the strongest positive and negative views respond (there should be limited numbers with strong negative views because of the ‘happy sheet’ evaluation). This produces results which are artificially skewed towards the positive.
Through this we have data to defend programmes against budget cuts and cynics, but it doesn’t really give any true sense of the effectiveness of this work. And looking at the overall data, with which we started the article, there is good reason to question how effective organisational spend is in developing leaders.
The standard model usually focuses around three core elements, with two optional ones. The three core elements are a combination of psychometrics for self-awareness, models and theories, and some experiential exercises with feedback on performance (building bridges out of paper cups or an equivalent). The optional additional elements are coaching and action learning, which are more time-consuming, more individually focused, and therefore more expensive and less utilised.
This standard model can be quite useful in many ways. The models can be informative and interesting. The feedback on performance in experiential exercises can help me be aware of my blind spots in interacting with others. The psychometrics can be useful to understand that it’s ok that others behave differently (although I question many of the underlying premises of these instruments).
However this combination does not appear to be producing the results. My view is that it is time for a different approach. This difference approach has to incorporate three different elements.
- Leadership is not about position in the hierarchy, nor is it about someone’s charisma, and it is not about learning tools, techniques or behaviours. It is about a commitment to do, change, create, or make something happen in the organisation or wider world, and about doing the work of self-cultivation to be able to deliver on this.
- Leadership development happens not through theories and models, self-awareness or feedback on performance in building a paper bridge, but rather through self-cultivation – a development of the self through embodied practices. And just like practising sports or music, it takes time and repetition (10,000 hours according to most research) to build competence – to develop a self that can fulfil on what you are committed to as a leader.
- The self is not, as Descartes unfortunately taught us, a separate non-physical entity set apart from our bodies. Modern neuroscience shows us that the body is intimately involved in our thinking, reasoning, emotions and decision-making. A wider view of the self encompasses the body and ties the body into leadership development.
Leadership development that embraces these three elements, in my experience, produces deeper and longer lasting development than that which does not. It engages participants in a process of self-cultivation and gives them a set of practices, which they can use to become generative in their own development. The ideas contained within are, perhaps, unusual but they are backed up by the latest research in science and psychology.
In my book, Embodied Leadership, I explore these ideas, the research behind them, and how to use them in practice, showing how together they produce a system of leadership development that is both profound and powerful.