What business does not want great leaders? 

Developing leadership has become one of the great preoccupations of businesses around the world, and not just at executive level. Management skills have become a staple of professional development initiatives for employees on every rung of the ladder, for two perfectly logical and valid reasons:

  1. Good leadership throughout an organisation can surely only improve operational performance.
  2. Developing the most talented people and enabling them to progress to the top is far more cost-effective than going to market for ready-made specialists.

"Despite huge investment, the complaint is a familiar one – leadership development changes very little in terms of culture and performance."

Yet the open secret about leadership development programmes is that they often fail to deliver anything like satisfactory results. Despite huge investment by organisations and an entire industry built around it, the complaint is as familiar as it is common – leadership development changes very little in terms of culture and performance.

This tale from the Harvard Business Review is a classic example – an entire business unit goes through the same leadership programme, everyone reports that the experience was ‘powerful’ and ‘inspiring’. Two years later, it had actually achieved virtually nothing in terms of tangible results.

This article from McKinsey puts some figures on the problem – two-thirds of executives rank leadership development as their number one concern, billions are spent annually on achieving it. Yet one study from a UK business school found that just 7% of senior managers believed leaders were being developed effectively.

So what is going wrong?

Leadership, not management

One theory is that leadership development is often confused with management training. As in the example from HBR above, the thinking is, you send people on a training course and they return with great leadership skills.

There are several things at play here. Firstly, there are important distinctions to be drawn between management and leadership.

While management is largely process-based, administrative and functional, leadership is more of an amorphous combination of qualities that includes ‘soft skills’ and personal attributes like people skills, drive, vision, the ability to inspire and innovate.

We might say that management can often be reduced to learning and repeating a certain body of skills and knowledge, whereas leadership depends more on innate talent.

This given, it is even possible that confusing the development of leadership talent with management training undermines the former. As this article in Forbes argues, management training focuses on “indoctrination on systems, processes and techniques.” In other words, it teaches one way of doing things, which could restrict the flair and vision you need for great leadership.


Context is key

Another problem, which the McKinsey article focuses on, is that leadership development is too often decoupled from context. This is seen in the number of external programmes that are used, most obvious in the number of universities and business schools now offering leadership courses.

The issue here is that third-party programmes inevitably take a one-size-fits-all approach. It is not just a matter of ‘indoctrination’ in a single model, but the fact that great leaders often depend very much on the context of their particular circumstances – the deep knowledge of a business and market they have built up over many years, the strength of the interpersonal relationships they have cultivated. These are simply things that cannot be replicated in a classroom.

It isn’t that these skills and talents are non-transferable. Once an individual has risen to a position of leadership and excelled in it, they are often well equipped to be able to succeed in other contexts as well.

The key point is that there is no quick fix to reach this point. Leadership development cannot be contained within the structures of a formal course, whether it lasts a week or three years. Great leadership depends on talent and the time to nurture it, and the route to the top for every individual will be unique and ultimately enriched by their own defining experiences.

Before an organisation embarks on any leadership development initiative across a siginificant cohort their people, it's pivotal that they first understand their context - 'what exactly needs to be developed within our people and how does this tie together with wider business objectives?'

We achieve this through an initial leadership assessment programme to identify gaps in behavioural and functional capabilities required to drive the organisation to the forefront of the market. The leadership development programme is subsequently built around the unvarnished realities and concrete evidence - not based on guesswork or standardised methodologies - thereby giving the programme the highest chance of success.

To speak to us about any of your organisation's leadership assessment & development objectives, get in touch.

+44 (0)161 926 4320 | enquiries@6-group.com