The Quest for the Holy Grail of Leadership Development

What is happening with leadership and leadership development today?

We are faced with an almost daily media onslaught of overwhelming, almost incredible examples of failed and poor leadership, spanning all sectors, from banking and finance to retail, hospitals, local government and many others.

Ironically this has coincided with the exponential growth of the leadership development industry during the past 30 years, with an annual leadership development spend of about $14 billion in the US alone (Gurdjian, 2014).

This raises some very important questions:

What is happening with leadership today?

What is happening in leadership development?

Against this background, a team of leadership faculty at Henley Business School set up a project to explore these issues with organisational practitioners, comprising alumni and clients from large, small and medium-sized corporates, not-for-profits, government and policy makers. This project has generated some very interesting insights into the challenges facing today’s leaders and has identified the ‘holy grail’ of leadership development – specific principles of how to design programmes to effectively develop leaders better prepared to meet their many and varied collective realities.

Leadership today is complex, challenging and demanding. Many people are starting to identify significant failures in traditional Western leadership. Often, today’s leadership roles are relatively short-term, with decision-making focused on quick fixes and rapid shareholder returns, and little consideration of the long-term consequences of these decisions on the wider stakeholder community. This causes increasing and conflicting tensions for today’s leaders, and has created the demand for ‘new responsible leadership’.

For many today, leadership refers not just to an individual but to a system comprising leaders, followers and context, each of which is both an independent and interdependent part of the whole. Leadership no longer sits with just a few people at the top of traditional organisational hierarchies, it is distributed to people throughout the organisation. Therefore, leadership programmes need to be targeted at a wider group of people, not just ‘leaders’ but also many ‘managers with leadership responsibilities’.

The challenges of leadership development

It is generally acknowledged that the most effective leadership development (70%) takes place in the workplace, with only 10% of effective leadership development coming from traditional classroom-style taught programmes. So why are organisations still so focused on the 10%? What is preventing them going for the more effective options?

The Henley advisory group identified several interesting factors, including the following:

  • It can take a long time for leaders to achieve real personal change – often months and sometimes years.
  • It can be difficult to measure outcomes, ROI and to know if the programme is working at all.
  • Organisational leaders often do not like traditional classroom-based lectures and prefer practice-based, experiential action learning programmes.
  • Organising work-based support can be difficult and complicated for organisations.

Sometimes, successful leadership development interventions result in leaders who speak out and challenge the status quo in the organisation and this can be difficult for some organisations.

The Henley project team identified the following 10 principles for designing successful leadership programmes. A successful leadership programme:

  1. is relevant and authentic to both leaders and organisational practice
  2. recognises that leadership and leadership development is experiential, iterative, explorative and behaviourally based
  3. develops leaders that are resilient and flexible
  4. supports a culture of continuous learning, reflection and personal change
  5. is flexible and part-time, with intensive workshops that maximise immersive learning opportunities but minimise time away from day-to-day commitments
  6. offers assignments and projects that produce practical benefits and key recommendations to the participants’ organisations throughout the programme
  7. promotes learning as ‘doing’ to develop behavioural and academic learning through problem-solving and action learning processes
  8. employs blended learning, using technology to support curriculum content between face-to-face workshops, virtual study teams and virtual action learning
  9. applies research projects using a broad range of research methods including action research and mixed methods
  10. offers assessments to meet external accreditations

Designing a new approach to leadership development

The high quality discussions and contributions with the advisory group really helped to inform the development of a new programme design, which addresses current challenges of leaders in today’s organisations, with particular emphasis on ‘responsible, purposeful leadership’.

The new Henley MA in Leadership provides a modular workshop design, focusing on real leadership challenges and projects, supported by the use of a blended approach of action learning and virtual action learning.Taking such an approach allows participants to focus on the applicability of their learning to their own experiences and challenges through synthesis, reflection and evaluation of both practice and theory.