The Quest for the Holy Grail of Leadership Development

If you glance through any newspaper, listen to the radio, watch the television or engage in social media, you are overwhelmed with the almost daily examples of failed and poor leadership, spanning all sectors, from banking, finance, supermarkets, hospitals, local government and many others, writes Dr Jean-Anne Stewart, programme director of the MA Leadership programme.

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Ironically this has coincided with the exponential growth of the leadership development industry during the past thirty years, with about $14 billion spent annually in the US alone on leadership development. A recent UK study reported only 7% of managers stated that their companies effectively develop their business leaders.

Yet we are still focused on developing leaders, as we know that effective leadership is one of the most essential requirements for the future economic success of our country.

This raises some very important questions:

  • What is happening with leadership today?
  • What is happening in leadership development? Why is it failing to develop the leaders we need?
  • How can business schools help the growing organisations in our region?

A team of Henley Leadership faculty set up a project to explore these issues with organisational practitioners. This three year project generated some very interesting insights into the challenges for today’s leaders. It identified some very useful principles to design programmes to effectively develop ‘better’ leaders to meet the varied collective realities of leaders, addressing complex global issues involving organisational and political change, technology, multi-cultural, international and virtual teams.

This is perhaps the ‘holy grail’ for the leadership development sector.

The leadership challenge – is leadership really different today?

Leadership today is complex, challenging and demanding, with leaders facing ‘wicked problems’ as highlighted by Grint in 2008 – problems with ’no right answer’ and often leaders look for the ‘least worst solution’ where there is no possibility of achieving a classic ‘win-win’ outcome.

Everything moves faster because technology ensures that there is almost instant communication and 24 hour media coverage, with coverage of leaders’ decisions and actions transmitted worldwide in minutes. This creates a new challenge where it is almost impossible for an individual leader to deal with all the strategic issues in their organisation, so leadership has to become more devolved.

There is a real need to develop a new perspective on leadership for the future, and leadership development programmes need to be focused at a wider group of people, not just the few ‘leaders’ at the top, but also many ‘managers with leadership responsibilities’, throughout the organisation.

The challenges of leadership development

The Henley Business School advisory group identified several interesting factors including:

  1. Personal leadership development is individual and cannot be forced
  2. Leaders need time to achieve real personal change – often months and sometimes years
  3. Cannot easily obtain ‘value for money’ or ‘return on investment’ measures
  4. Easier to organise ‘classroom-based’ teaching style sessions.

The focus on taught programmes, particularly the approach to teaching ‘leadership models’ was heavily criticised by the advisory group and they commented that ‘People did not blame leadership failures on their lack of knowledge of leadership theory.’

The group acknowledged the importance to develop leaders using adult-centered approaches, knowing when and how to bring in experience and practice into the learning, and how to develop critical and analytical skills, rather than just fact-based knowledge.

There was a strong endorsement for developing leaders’ skills in asking questions and investigating their organisational challenges.

This coincides with the resurgence of action learning (Revans, 1998, Pedler, 2008) and moves away from the traditional perspective of leaders having all the answers and acknowledges how leaders can develop appropriate new behaviours and skills, to live in this complex world.

At the end of the project, the team had developed the Henley MA Leadership programme, which has now been launched very successfully at Henley Business School, Greenlands, and is receiving excellent feedback.

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