A 21st century approach to leadership development.

In a complex environment, focusing development on leaders’ capabilities is at best inadequate.  What has been termed the leader approach in the 20th century has assumed that leadership is about creating a unifying vision, inspiring people, cascading solutions and targets down through an organisation, and getting staff to sign up for and share leader’s goals.   With the complexity facing today’s organisations this approach to leadership can lead to organisational disaster: individual leaders cannot know the best solutions for organisational challenges that require a major rethink of current ways of working and need creative, as yet unknown, ways forward. Creating this kind of change must use knowledge spread amongst many different groups of people and deal with hotly contested views about what needs to be done.

Key Facts

    Leadership in the new organisation context is about:

    • creating awareness of the complex challenges that are mission and survival critical;

    • recognising they may not fall within any single business unit, or the leader or executive team’s capabilities;

    • facing people up to the consequences of inaction;

    • supporting cross organisation teams to find new perspectives;

    • creating the social and cultural conditions for positive use of power and influence across different interest groups;

    • making sure that processes are aligned and fit for purpose.

Impact of our research

We find that new leadership practices need to be widely engaged through the organisation but with a strong, shared sense of organisational purpose and identity.  This means our focus on developing Leadership Practices is connected to organisational challenges, rather than personal development for leader roles.   Leadership as Practice development challenges deep-rooted assumptions about leadership and affords learners and their organizations the opportunity to explore new constructions of leadership.  This is a significant departure from traditional approaches to leadership development that many providers offer.   

As a result of our research we have developed key principles for new leadership development involving collaborative learning and live organisation challenges at the heart of the learning process. Our leadership development helps the organisation cope with the cross-boundary, adaptive change work they are increasingly engaged in.  In the link to this article you will find out more about the learning principles. In the article ‘Helping Leaders do Leadership Differently’, we explore key aspects of adaptive challenges that comprise new leadership work.

Why the research was commissioned

Organisations spend a significant amount of money on leadership development. When organisations face cross roads, need to embrace new directions, or find they are failing and needing a major turnaround they ask the question ‘what do we need to support us?’  The answer is invariably better leadership capabilities and they often commission a leader development programme.  Despite engaging the best development providers they are often disappointed: they end up with developed leaders but an unchanged organisation.  Indeed the developed individuals often no longer find their fit in their organisation and leave. 

By contrast, our focus is on creating organisational capability not just individual capability in order to bring about real systems change.  Individual learning will happen too, but the primary interest is ‘can we help the organisation deal better with the challenges it faces?’