Why and how we must change the way we develop tomorrow’s leaders

Are we developing the leaders we need for tomorrow, or is leadership development still focused on the past?

This was one of the questions addressed by recent European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) research, which looks at how leadership development is being transformed at a time of unprecedented disruption, uncertainty and complexity across the business landscape.

Often, the challenges companies are facing outstrip current leadership theory – so the dozen major organisations contributing to the research looked at practical examples of what was working for them. 

Their conclusion was that the necessary reinvention of organisations cannot be achieved without reinventing what leadership itself means, and without ensuring leaders are equipped to lead through the transformation from where we are, to where we need to be.

Learning with the best

The companies that contributed the thinking and expertise to the ‘Innovation in Leadership’ report and developed that big conclusion, were Bayer AG, Barry Callebaut AG, Engie, Essilor Luxottica, La Baloise, L’Oréal, Naturgy, Nokia, Repsol, Siemens, Swiss Re, and UBS. So these were not the musings of minor players.

These companies are at the cutting edge of leadership change. They are mounting successful challenges to conventional leadership development by rethinking what is needed to support a vibrant leadership culture.

The consistent underpinning narrative is that there is a direct link between leadership behaviour, staff interaction and the wellbeing of the organisation.

They are trying to deal with these challenges in new and innovative ways, and the EFMD report shares the progress that has been made, as well as the insights and new practices that are happening quietly around us.

Practical, practice-based insights

The practice-based insights of these experienced and active practitioners are compelling, not least because they are the output of a diverse group spanning technological, beauty, pharmaceutical, energy, and financial sectors, and embracing organisations both variously regional, national and global.

The consistent underpinning narrative is that there is a direct link between leadership behaviour, staff interaction and the wellbeing of the organisation. Getting these conditions right leads to increased productivity and better performance.

It was apparent that the 12 companies were trying to realign traditional views and related behaviours of their leaders. These shifts can be encapsulated in the following way:

Power and control Facilitation and enablement
Being certain Exploring uncertainty
Individual success The power of the team
Perfecting process Innovating process
Managing uncertainty Living with uncertainty
Occasional experiment Permanent testing and learning
Being omniscient Admitting you don’t know
Punishing failure Learning from failure
Low trust environment  High trust environment
Working it out on your own Peer empowerment and sharing
Learning from content Learning from experience
Static roles Dynamic roles


How we must change

The research highlights areas those responsible for leadership development must consider if they are to ensure that they are developing leaders fit to meet the challenges of tomorrow:

  • Even if leaders think that the leadership development that they are receiving is excellent, we must challenge the degree to which it aligns with the demands of tomorrow.
  • Organisations should question the most fundamental aspects of their leadership development – for example, is the nomination process still useful and fit for purpose?
  • We must personalise the leadership journey, so that leadership development is targeted more and more at each individual participant, and addresses their specific needs
  • Delivery of leadership development must be in context – appropriate for the workplace of the future towards which we are travelling. 
  • It may be appropriate to rethink the role of potential new leaders.  For example, should we differentiate between those happy to act as business co-ordinators and those seeking leadership roles?
  • We must build a value for, a belief in and a commitment to, coaching and mentoring by all leaders throughout the organisation.
  • Leadership development must incorporate self-reflection leading to a commitment to action. Organisations and individuals must make space for and value reflection.
  • We need to be far more adept at developing leaders in context. And to be prepared to change that context rapidly.
  • We must close the gap between what leaders know and what they do. The outcome of interventions should be behavioural change and action.
  • Leadership development should be an integrated and critical part of the change agenda inside organisations.
  • We are still caught up a belief that if we give them the formula, they will have the answers. The world is too complex, and demands change too rapidly for this to help leaders
  • We should focus on the cutting edge of what will replace traditional interventions. Innovation should be at the core of leadership development.
  • Lean and agile methodologies should be employed for the rapid evolution and prototyping of new models and approaches.
  • We need to get beyond set piece many-day programmes, into extended and continuous learning.

What did the research teach us?

The most notable insight was that despite huge differences in scope and challenge, despite members coming from hugely different sectors and operating in different markets, the challenges faced were very similar.

Not one organisation was satisfied with the scope or impact of their current leadership development offerings; all recognised the need for radical change as an urgent requirement.

The role of leaders in embodying and helping adapt organisational culture to new needs is vital. But a consistent approach, together with a set of shared beliefs and behaviours, must be cascaded from the top of the organisation.

Leaders are the custodian of the organisation’s culture and values. These are significant in times of disruption and it is at the point where values are challenged, that leaders must support them most strongly.

Discovery is an important element in leadership development. Peer-to-peer learning encourages leaders to work it out for themselves and helps create constant development embedded in work and practice.

So, we can develop leaders fit for tomorrow’s purpose – but the time to start is now, and the way to go is to forget everything you thought you knew. When tomorrow comes, if leaders need one thing over all others it’s a new playbook. It’s time to get drafting.


About the author

Roger Delves is professor of practice in leadership at Hult Ashridge Executive Education.


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