How Much Do You Invest in Leadership Development?

We all live in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. When cultural change abounds, the irony I frequently observe is organisations engage in less leadership development, rather than more.

Leaders work in increasingly leaner organisations. They are more diverse, culturally and generationally. Their collaborations may be virtual, and navigating the virtual world brings additional demands and benefits.

High on leadership, low on resources

Also, leaders increasingly work in resource-starved environments where demands are more significant, especially in the public and not-for-profit sectors.

As an example, I have a client who leads a cancer charity. Superb medical advances in cancer treatments mean patients are surviving longer. While prolonging life is an excellent outcome, few realise that this also increases the demand for longer-term support services, not reduce it. However, like all charitable organisations, her charity relies heavily upon public donations, which is a volatile income source at best.

Her situation demands better strategic thinking, more creativity and innovation, and greater agility and responsiveness. In short, like her, today’s leaders need to be even more flexible and adaptive.

My personal concern

However, I remain unconvinced about how effectively organisations are investing in leadership development to meet today’s challenges. I still encounter too frequently outdated approaches to leadership development. We still live with a ‘sheep dip’ mentality, where staff are cycled through a ‘training programme’ and then expected to transform organisations overnight.

Those staff may be adaptive—are their organisations?

What doesn’t help is that, often, they will be returning to organisations where permission and trust are not in place for those same staff to practice what they learned, let alone transform their team or company.

What do we need?

I believe that we need more and different investment in leadership development.

If leadership begins with the individual, which I firmly believe, then let’s start there. How to do this involves four key steps:

  1. We need to expand our definition of leadership. They are not the privileged few at the apex of any organisation. They exist at every level, even though their job role or title may not indicate this. We need to acknowledge their presence and invest in their skills and talents.
  2. We need to redefine which leadership capabilities matter most. Increasingly, leaders exist in a much longer ‘span of control’ network. They need to get things done without too much ‘command and control’. They need to trust other staff, leaders themselves, to do what is necessary without high levels of oversight and supervision.
  3. We need to re-think leadership development methods. ‘Sheep-dip’ is clearly no longer a viable solution. Many organisations are moving to virtual solutions to reduce both cost and pressure of time. However, those staff-in-training, at whatever level, must have the opportunity to practice, make mistakes, and receive coaching and support on improving their talents and skills. Learning from mistakes is key to this approach—and patience, perseverance, and encouragement are required from line-managers in the process.
  4. More so, individuals need to recognise for themselves what development is required and pursue this vigorously. As an example, a millennial I coach and mentor monthly has identified clear goals for the year, which we focus upon. He supplements that with a mixture of reading, course participation, and webinar learning. He is fully committed to his development. He works in the not-for-profit sector, and he is probably one of the few, maybe the only one in his organisation that is.

The way ahead

I believe that he represents the way forward for those interested in leadership development. People need to develop a leadership mindset focused on organisational transformation. They need to develop core capabilities that enable them to respond to relentless change. Among them, I would emphasise an ability to collaborate and influence. I’d complement those with advanced skills in negotiation, communication, and managing change.

In summary, investing in more, not less, leadership development enhances a transformational mindset and builds core adaptive and agile skills. It should also include staff at all levels of your organisation, not just the usual suspects!

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