It’s not about leadership skills, it’s about organisational behaviours

Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford argue that leadership development should be seen as part of a transformational process for the firm as a whole

If things didn’t change, we wouldn’t need leadership: we could simply manage the existing, well-known process, doing the same thing over and over again in a nice, comfortable way.

But things do change, and organisations must themselves adapt constantly to reflect this challenging fact of life. As the pace of change accelerates, we need leadership of a very high calibre to keep organisations relevant and successful.

Leadership development programmes train leaders to meet this challenge. However, such programmes tend to exist in a kind of vacuum: leaders are ‘developed’ in business schools and then sent back in their new, improved state to an organisation that has not itself, by definition, moved on. 

This is a lot like taking the most promising soldiers out of the trenches of the First Word War to become a new generation of leaders, training them in modern tactics and the use of new weapons, then sending them back to the trenches. Everyone in the trenches has the same old weapons and is using the same old tactics, yet the new leaders are expected to lead the troops to a remarkable and unlikely victory.

The need for organisational transformation

What is needed, clearly in this analogy, is an overall transformation of the strategic situation: a process of organisational transformation of which the new leader is a key part – but only a part.

Continuing with our WWI analogy, the new leaders who have been plucked out of the trenches should be sent, not back to the trenches, but to work with the chiefs of staff, and through them the army as a whole, on the use of the new tactics and weapons in order to transform the strategic situation.

Leaders can and must lead the process of transformation but it is unreasonable to see the development of leadership as wholly separate from the process of organisational transformation; it merely invites failure. The ultimate goal, after all, is not highly developed leaders but transformed organisations.

There are, we suggest, three main obstacles to achieving this in most modern organisations.

Skills or behaviours?

Firstly, there is ongoing confusion between the development of leadership ‘skills’ and ‘behaviours’.  Developing a change in behaviour is much more challenging than developing new skills. It is relatively easy to decide what skills to build on and improve, how to train for those skills and how to assess to what extent skills have improved. It is far harder to define behavioural change requirements. There is also disagreement as to what behaviours we want to change and how to go about changing them.

Too little, too late

The second obstacle to successful leadership development is that it is offered too late in people’s careers, at a time when ideas, attitudes and behaviours are well-established and harder to change. And, certainly in the case of internal promotions to leadership positions, when the individuals already have a substantial degree of alignment to the prevailing approaches and attitudes of their organisations. By this stage, they may find it difficult even to envisage how and why they or the organisation should change.

How much better would it be to offer leadership training to a wide range of employees, early in their career?

Modern organisations need leadership at every level; people at all levels of seniority want and expect to be able to lead at various times and on a variety of projects while happily following at other times and in other situations. This applies all the way up to the top leadership team, where self-confident colleagues should be willing and able to pass leadership around between them. Organisations have a huge, and arguably an increasingly desperate, need for leadership in depth –absolutely not the same as management in depth, which is all too common and is a large part of the issue.

Behaving in ways which prevent what you need

Thirdly, and finally, there is the issue of the behaviour change space: what are the behaviours that we should seek to change as part of the learning process which will bring about organisational transformation? In My Steam Engine is Broken, we identify ten such core behaviours, set out as ten core paradoxes of modern organisational behaviour, because they prevent the very outcomes that most organisations know that they need. In particular, they prevent self-direction, self-motivation, commitment and creativity: the very things that an organisation needs most from its members in a knowledge economy.

These paradoxical behaviours, have been inherited from the industrial era. They are so deeply ingrained that we unconsciously repeat them; we have come to believe that this is how we are supposed to behave.

The paradoxes are to do with issues of control, measurement and ‘efficiency’; with the belief that the job of management (the word ‘leader’ tends to drop out of the vocabulary that describes industrial era organisations) is to measure and control the behaviour of ‘workers’; with the failure to encourage individual responsibility or self-organisation; with the stifling of creativity and innovation; with the absence of true diversity and with, indeed, leadership behaviours.

The aggregation of marginal gains

If we begin to transform these old modes of thought and behaviour, then the organisation itself can begin a process of transformation. It is practically impossible to transform something as unwieldy as an organisation through one leadership initiative. Yet starting to rethink our behaviours, and introducing these behaviours throughout the organisation by means of an ongoing learning process – little by little and piece by piece – will begin to transform the organisation  into a place that offers challenge and fulfilment to its members, and which thrives and adapts as a direct result.

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