Developing Leaders for Tomorrow

Most leadership development programs run by major institutions follow the same, tried and true construct – a mix of classroom training and action-learning projects where “leaders-in-training” can practice new skills and behaviors.  The “educational” aspect is aligned to support the movement of selected leaders into new, more demanding roles – roles where they will further develop their capabilities through experience.  Are these programs working to produce the capabilities needed to successfully lead organizations in the 21st Century?

A typical program is organized in three modules – leading self, leading others, leading organizations.  When leading self, it is important for a leader to develop self-awareness and insight into what makes him or her tick, what he or she aspires to be –his or her mental model of leadership, and what might trip him or her up.  The goal is for the leader to gain just enough self-awareness and vulnerability to want to take action to build his or her capabilities as a leader.

When leading others, a leader should learn that not everyone thinks and feels the same as he or she does.  The leader develops appreciation for what others can bring to a team and how to help them to collaborate towards accomplishing shared goals.  Influencing, negotiation, and prioritization are critical skills that must be developed and mastered in learning to lead others.

When leading organizations, a leader appreciates the forces from within and outside the organization that create potential obstacles and new opportunities and seeks to get an early read on them.  A leader will expand his or her network and perspective to both think strategically and take decisive action to pivot when conditions call for a tactical shift.

Organizations have been developing leaders in this way for many years.  They identify those they think have potential to make these transitions– from leader of self, to leader of others, to leader of organizations — and provide training, coaching, mentoring, and assignments that build capabilities through experience.  But is this still an effective method for developing the leaders needed in today’s world – where change and transformation in technology, in markets, in business models is constant, disruptive and substantive?

While the model of looking at leading self, leading others, and then leading organizations may still be useful, is something more – something different – needed for leaders to be successful today and in the future?  The challenges leaders face today call for an understanding of systems, organizational networks, a growth mindset, and the agility to flex in order to adapt to changing circumstances.  At the same time, leaders need to be grounded in order to make effective decisions.  They must be grounded by the desired identity of the organization – what it aims to stand for – as well as the values it lives by.  Companies known for outstanding leader development – e.g., GE and Proctor and Gamble – have this foundation of identity and values.  These are the qualities of a “true north” that guide the organization through turbulent times.

We recognize that the world of work is dynamic, and that many factors impact organizations at any given time (economic, physical, technological, social, political, etc.)   A shift in any one of these factors can have profound effects on organizations.  Adhering to a specific vision for what the organization will be in the future can impede its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. In their excellent article – The Dialogic Mindset:  Leading Change in a Complex World (by Gervase R. Bushe, Ph.D. and Robert J. Marshak, Ph.D. in the Special Issue of the Organization Development Journal on Developing Culturally Adaptive Leaders for Turbulent Times, 2016) – the authors argue that “in the new leadership narrative, the leader does not know in advance what the content of the change will be, but does provide a process for change that engages those people who will help the organization learn and adapt through collective inquiry.”   They say that in complex contexts, a leader’s role is to mobilize stakeholders and allow new solutions to emerge by conducting small experiments.   The leader engages others in innovating to adapt to change, rather than defining a specific vision, designing “the” solution conceptually, and then imposing it on the system.

For leaders to drive this sort of evolving change, they must be able to cope with anxiety and ambiguity, be confident in themselves and challenge the status quo, be curious and connect emotionally, as well as intellectually, with others.  So how should leadership development programs build these capabilities in leaders?  One way Herminia Ibarra has found, is to let them play:

https://hbr.org/2015/03/the-most-productive-way-to-develop-as-a-leaderGreen Silk Associates is available to assist in designing leadership development programs of the future.