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Only Leadership Development can save the world!

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The world needs just one thing to survive. More leaders. Which means one thing we need to do more of is leadership development. It’s the only way forward.

Does that sound absurd to you? It’s not surprising: there are too many issues to count which threaten our global existence; if we look around us there are too many voices trying to be in charge; and the leadership development market is saturated with offers, consultants and institutions providing the ‘solution’ for you and your organisation.

Perhaps the world in fact needs fewer leaders and, most significantly, fewer people sharing their thoughts around how leadership should happen? That is certainly a perspective many people would have sympathy with.

But is it true?

Every issue is a leadership issue

In 2016 I became a co-founder of an NGO in Central America which works to solve issues in social inequity through systemic change. Our initial focus was on inequity due to disability, supporting access to education, employment, healthcare and leisure opportunities. Taking one of these as an example, it is easy to see how rapidly issues escalate to a point where only leadership can solve them. Let’s say that a child is unable to go access education because their local school doesn’t have the resources in place to support physical access – on the face of it, this is an easily solved issue, simply invest in the resources required and access becomes possible.

But of course, it is not that simple. Does the teacher have the skills to support that pupil? Is the head teacher willing to provide a place for the child at the school if they believe it will lead to an additional burden? Does the local government education officer prioritise access to education for children with disabilities over other challenges? Does the Ministry of Education have a strategy to develop inclusive education? Do political leaders have a vision of access to education for all, and the ability to align others behind this?

Leadership has a trickledown effect – this is not in a hierarchical sense, but systemically. In order for a child to go to school, someone somewhere must have a leadership vision behind which others align in order to act to make it happen.

Beyond microscale issues such as this, the significance of leadership is also true when facing the biggest imaginable challenges. Famously Greta Thunberg called out leadership failings when she addressed the UN on climate change in 2019:

“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.”

From the largest- to smallest-scale issue, the single common component which is required is leadership. Yes, resources, innovations, tools, processes, policies are all needed, but these flow from a leadership position which captures these and creates conditions in which they can be useful.

We do not have enough leaders

Given the readiness of many individuals in public and private spaces to share their perspectives on how things could be better, it might seem odd to assert that the world lacks leaders. But reflecting on how we see events across the globe unfold, how much genuine leadership do we see take place?

‘Being in charge’ is frequently confused with leadership, and while one aspect of leadership is providing direction, direction by itself is not leadership. Many of those who aspire to leadership positions are in reality simply ‘in charge’. Leaders create the desire in others to act while those in charge just tell others what to do.

What do you see most of in the world around you? Leaders who inspire or individuals who tell?
Does it matter if people are driven to act rather than inspired to act? In a simple environment, perhaps it doesn’t – where there is a clear line from need, to task, to output maybe the mechanisms which lead to action don’t matter. But how many simple environments are left to us?

The 21st century is characterised by complexity. It is not that we face greater challenges, existence has always had a degree of precariousness, it is more that we face greater complexity. In a simple environment it is enough to consider ‘what’ needs to be done; in a complex environment we must look to ‘why’ it must be done.

The interconnectedness and ambiguity that revolves around us creates an excess of options to pursue, rather than limiting the solutions we have available to us. To select the right course and find an effective solution we need to navigate the implications and ripples of each solution we could pursue. A ‘what’ – based approach finds a solution that follows the path of least resistance, a ‘why’ – based solution follows the path of greatest impact.

So why does this drive a belief that we do not have enough leaders? Leadership is increasingly dispersed and lives at the point of action rather than strategy. The ability to respond to rapidly changing circumstance has made leaders of us all – in our roles we each inhabit complex sub-contexts which only we can speak to, breaking the hierarchical siloes of leadership which have limited us before. The world has made leaders of us all, we now need to fulfil this role.

Businessman in suit and cape hero stand

Leaders need to be built

This is perhaps incontestable. We have evolved beyond the point where we see leadership as an intangible, charismatic ability and firmly believe that the skills of leaders can be learned. However, if we have a lack of true leaders, but at the same time have a highly active leadership development industry, what is the inevitable conclusion we must draw? That leadership development as we know it does not work.

We have really only had less than a century researching and theorising about leadership, and in this time the ‘truths’ which have been revealed have repeatedly evolved. From the ‘Great Man’ theory through to Trait and Power perspectives which then evolved into Behavioural, Situational and Contingency approaches, and then Transformative, Authentic and Servant Leadership, the ways we think about leadership reflect the world we inhabit.

Leadership development followed the leadership theories – once a position that leadership skills could be learned emerged, the inevitable next step was an industry which embedded these skills. Alongside the growth of business schools which created a management cadre, leadership development initiatives, often bracketed as Executive Education, became the must-have addition to any C-suite member’s CV.

But is Executive Education as it exists now development or simply validation? Focusing on senior individuals at a premium price, how much can it genuinely effect systemic leadership improvement? Leadership happens at all points in an individual’s career, but by only investing in those who are potentially at their professional pinnacle it does not lead to a step change in how leadership happens.

In parallel the leadership publishing industry has also grown, becoming a vast sector that pumps out materials weekly. In a competitive industry it is essential that any publication makes its case as a definitive answer to leadership challenges. This leads to dogmatism in viewpoint, and eventually creates leadership rules and practices which are transmitted rather than explored. This does not favour forward-leaning leadership practices – the lag between practice, research and codification leads to the institutionalisation of the status quo, not innovations in practice. Leadership is contextual, so any books on the topic are as wrong as they are right. There is no single approach, the leader’s toolkit picks from every perspective.

So, as we need more leadership to deal with more issues it is only rational that we need more leadership development. We just need to make sure that this development practice evolves as rapidly as the challenges that leadership is there to solve.

Innovating to be fit for purpose

If leadership development is to change the world, what must it look like? Here are three key underpinnings which I believe anyone engaged in developing leaders needs to integrate:

Development is dialogue not dogma

To train a leader in a perspective, approach or model is to stifle their ability to lead. They need to develop their own approach which responds to the context they are in rather than shoehorn an alien perspective into their world.

Development is at the point of delivery

As individuals we do not grow in isolation form the world around us. To develop as a leader, the journey you go on must be embedded in the very real setting in which you need to act as a leader.

Development is a lifelong cycle

There is no single-hit leadership learning solution, it is an ongoing process which begins right at the start of a career. Leadership happens everywhere in organisations, not just the top; similarly, leadership development must happen everywhere too.

We have had a taste of a disrupted future during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it has given us an opportunity to understand where our failings and successes in future global challenges will lie. The process, technologies, expertise and communities which have generated vaccines, care networks and supply chains have originated the solutions we have turned to. But the foundations on which these have been built are the conditions created by leadership – and we have seen how these solutions have either thrived or withered given the leadership decisions which have been made.

To save the world we need leaders, and to have leaders we need to build them. Leadership development is critical for our global needs, and we need to ensure that it is fit for purpose.

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