From the archive: Have your say

One of the benefits of being a TJ subscriber is full access to our decades-long archive of content – here we look back to a piece about ripping up the leadership development rule book from December 2012.


It’s time to start an L&D revolution in leadership development, says Robin Ryde.

The operating environment for all organisations has changed immeasurably over the last few decades. I remember working for an organisation in the early 1990s when the decision was finally taken to allow access to the Internet (pause for gasps of surprise). This was arrived at through much debate and the final ruling was that only staff with an outward-facing role, such as external relations, would be allowed. Of course, if you were caught visiting any non-work related websites, like Hotmail or Amazon, you would risk a disciplinary discussion with your boss.

I also recall a time a few years later when working at home was recognised as a legitimate way to work and not a thinly veiled excuse to have a duvet day.

So times have surely changed but I want to suggest that, despite all of this, [pullquote]today’s organisations, and more specifically today’s leaders, are failing to modernise[/pullquote]. They are, in my opinion, increasingly outmoded in the way that they operate, and they are underperforming as a result. The question, though, that I want to pose in relation to this is how has the L&D profession contributed to this situation? We have always sought to catalyse change, and the growth of the organisation development discipline alongside the L&D profession is testament to this, but have we done enough and, perhaps more worryingly, might we be part of the problem?

The death of deference

The last few decades have seen deep and meaningful change taking place. Amongst other things, what has characterised this change is a steady decline in the level of deference expressed towards people in authority and in positions of expertise: a phenomenon known as the ‘death of deference’. This has been catalysed by many things including shifting cultural attitudes, 24:7 media coverage, social media, the phenomenal power of the Internet and more.

On the global stage, this idea is captured by events such as the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements, Wikileaks and so on, as well as inflammatory incidents such as the British MPs’ expenses scandal, the Leveson Inquiry, bank interest rate fixing, and even the causes of the global financial crisis. 

Closer to home, we experience this phenomenon in a variety of ways. Take, for example, our relationship with the medical profession. Whereas some years ago we might have visited the doctor, been prescribed pills to get better, done as asked and hoped for the best, today something completely different happens. We Google our symptoms, we find out more, we get smart and the dynamic changes. A relationship previously based fully on trust in the expert’s ability, motivations and understanding (the doctor’s in this case) transforms into one that is more equal, discursive and often challenging.

Consent and evade

When we read across these ideas into the workplace, where of course the principles of authority, expertise and hierarchy are well established, we see some interesting results. Take, for example, the ever-present business of leading change. The data on organisational change is very rich and frighteningly clear. What it tells us is that around two thirds of change programmes fail. That is quite some failure rate, which naturally prompts the question why?

There are some understandable reasons why this might be the case: the operating environment may change more quickly than we anticipate, causing us to reconsider the change agenda. Or perhaps changes driven by technological opportunities prove to be more complex than expected. But one of the most significant reasons is captured in what we call the Consent and Evade principle, and it goes like this – workers see the boss stand up in front of a packed auditorium to announce the next big strategic push; the workers listen, smile and give the thumbs up, but when they return to their desks they carry on as usual; they consent and evade. This is problematic in two ways. Firstly, it slows down, and may even derail, change and, secondly, it is difficult for leaders to detect. It is often invisible and it may be too late before they appreciate the true picture of support.

Don’t let the boss speak first

A quotation by Victoria Holtz gives another insight into the ways in which the deference phenomenon infiltrates the workplace: “The quickest way to kill creativity is to let the boss speak first.” This captures powerfully the downside of deferential systems in that they too often strangle creativity and innovation before it has even had the chance to breathe. [pullquote]Deferential cultures too often press the mute button on employees[/pullquote], who weigh up the odds and decide that it’s best to wait to see which way the boss is leaning before pitching in.

Ron Ashkenas, blogger for the Harvard Business Review, describes his experience of this: “Not long ago I sat in on a meeting of the executive leadership team for a global technology company. At the beginning of the session, the CEO quickly flashed a couple of slides on the screen that summarised key aspects of the firm’s strategy, saying: ‘You’ve all seen these charts before, so we don’t have to dwell on them.’ The meeting then proceeded from there. There was only one problem: none of the other executives had seen those slides before; they had been created by the CEO’s strategy director only a couple of days prior to the meeting. Yet not a single person in the room spoke up.”

With something like creativity, which already involves risk, high levels of uncertainty and difficulty, the last thing we need is a system that, by its nature, quietens the voices of many who are able to contribute.

So the questions I ask in relation to this are: what are we teaching our leaders about operating in a modern environment? What do we tell them good leadership is? What are the orthodoxies that we routinely impart to senior members of staff, perhaps even unknowingly?

The leadership development orthodoxy

In the leadership field, we typically teach a range of capabilities loosely associated with the idea of personal effectiveness. The profession is very good at this and deploys psychometrics, 360° instruments, feedback and more to support it. We also work to develop skills in a range of other areas – from strategic thinking, project management and influencing to networking, public speaking and change management. While on the face of it these are seemingly quite different from one another, they possess a similar quality in that they too are about effectively mobilising personal resources to accomplish an objective.

In short, a large proportion of the organisational investment made in leadership L&D:

  • builds the strength, authority and capabilities of senior people so that they can more effectively pursue their strategic objectives. Much of this inevitably is focused on directing and shaping the efforts of others
  • communicates, implicitly, that this is what leadership is (a purposeful utilisation of power, authority and skill exercised to direct the efforts of others)
  • reinforces, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, the convention that power and authority should be located at the top of the organisational hierarchy, and it should flow downwards.

Does leadership L&D create organisational deference?

And this, I think, is where we start to run into trouble if we want to embrace a more modern notion of organisations. Here are six ways in which the L&D profession plays its part in reinforcing deference, and holding back the tide of modernisation:

  • we increase the power differential between leaders and ‘followers’ We train the bosses to be ever-more powerful and unassailable and yet, to overcome the Consent and Evade phenomenon and invite greater levels of innovation, we need instead to establish honest, authentic, two-way and power-free dialogue between levels
  • we widen the talent gap between leaders and ‘followers’ We invest heavily in training leaders to strengthen their own capabilities, so that they can achieve their own objectives, but do little to help leaders build the capabilities of the people around them. This is a bit like building great upper-body strength at the gym but ignoring the rest of the body
  • we underwrite the symbols of deference by sending leaders away to prestigious venues, country retreats and international business schools, while the rest of the workforce make do with the organisation’s training rooms or on-the-job training
  • we perpetuate the belief that leaders are exceptional individuals that warrant deference We do this in a range of different ways, for example by running high-potential programmes that only select the ‘very best’, by using remarkable and charismatic sports people, politicians and explorers to inspire leaders and by focusing so much of our attention on personal leadership qualities
  • we pay attention to the ‘how’ of leadership but remain silent on the ‘what’ (leadership is seeking to accomplish) Our efforts are almost always focused on helping leaders do better what they are currently trying to do (regarding the ‘what’ as a ‘matter for leaders to decide’). It is when addressing the ‘what’ space that more fundamental questions can be asked about taken-for-granted ideas of hierarchy, top-down leadership and the distribution of power
  • we are ‘high’ on supporting leaders but ‘low’ on challenging leaders When dealing with leadership development, the trainer-trainee relationship is an unusual one in that the trainer, not usually having been a ‘leader’, is ultimately at a disadvantage should he choose to challenge the leader. It remains an unspoken, but important, dynamic that invites deference into this relationship and detracts from the ability of the L&D professional to make the impact he would like.

Spot the sniper

Returning briefly to the operating context, the comparatively glacial pace of change a few decades ago has been replaced by the rapid, ‘slushy’1 quality of change nowadays. And with this comes the need for organisations to be much more agile and adaptive. Top-down, deferential organisations won’t cut the mustard in this environment. Instead, we need the whole organisation engaged in detecting risks with all eyes on the situation and not just the seniors empowered to act. 

There is a fascinating video posted on YouTube called “spot the sniper” in which the camera slowly pans from side to side in a quiet woodland clearing and, perhaps unsurprisingly, you are invited to pick out where you think the sniper is hiding. Stare as hard as you like, you simply cannot work out where the sniper is. The scene is still, tranquil and yet nothing that vaguely resembles a sniper stands out. A few orders are barked from the cameraman and then the ground rustles. The sniper appears seemingly from nowhere, standing up now, impossible to miss. Then another movement in the undergrowth and a second sniper emerges. Then a third, and fourth and this goes on until more than 25 people in full military kit are standing in front of the camera, filling the entire scene. Seconds earlier they were entirely invisible to the viewer.

The lesson that we might draw from this is that survival in this scenario will not be assured if we are reliant on a single, authoritative perspective. To pick out the threat, we need all eyes on the scene and from many different perspectives, constantly exchanging ideas until the threat can be triangulated and located. Seeing the same situation in many different ways is the key to success. So, if we take this idea and imagine it into the corporate environment, which of course possesses as much ambiguity and complexity, we can see the limitations of a leadership orthodoxy based on exercising authority that is aligned to a single perspective. Being an individual who has learned to be really skilled at wielding his power to direct the effort of others is not helpful in this example. It is not a useful capability, not, that is, for the organisation.

The L&D leadership development revolution

So what might be the part that L&D can play in leadership development and in modernising organisations? It’ s an exciting challenge and one I am sure was one of the reasons why many of us joined the L&D profession in the first place. Here are five ways in which L&D can start a leadership development revolution:

  • remove from the script of training programmes the idea that leadership is about exceptional individuals If anything, leadership is about exceptional circumstances that appear ever more frequently. We should foster the idea of ‘distributed leadership’ and in doing so recognise that leadership occurs in big and small ways all the time: at the board table, at the checkout tills, when the customer makes a complaint, when a non-executive director challenges the CEO, when the boss asks for help, and so on
  • develop leadership skills at all levels, especially those lower down the hierarchy Consider, too, running development programmes with teams, diagonal slices of employees, project groups and so on. Bring people together, rather than create division and ‘them and us’ groups. [pullquote]Teach leadership as a topic that has relevance to us all, not just the higher levels[/pullquote]
  • shift the emphasis from the ‘how’ of leadership to the ‘what’ of leadership Do not, as L&D professionals, shy away from fundamental questions about leadership purpose (assuming that this is territory that L&D cannot enter). Pose big and bold questions to leaders on L&D programmes about their strategic intent, their assumptions about the future and the edges of their understanding. And feel comfortable in breaking the deference cycle in order to explore and challenge the ideas presented
  • design training programmes that help leaders to develop the capabilities of their people (while focusing less on themselves) These should focus on enhancing the coaching skills of leaders, using appreciative methods to build confidence and inviting leaders to plan out opportunities for their people to broaden experiences. This is an important part of the equation, and one that ultimately gives confidence in then delegating more power further down the organisational system
  • explicitly develop the skills of leaders in modernising their organisations Particular attention should be given to the implications of the Generation Y mindset, the influence of social media, the death of deference and the ‘slushy’ nature of change. Get senior leaders using Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media. Get leaders to learn lessons from the bottom-up movements of the last few decades. Get leaders to understand why, for example, so many game-changing creative modern developments (think Facebook, open source material, Wikipedia, blogging, collaborative tools etc) have arisen, at least initially, outside of the walls of the corporate world. And explore how this creative seam can be tapped.

To view all references from this article, please open the pdf file.


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