Why developing leaders isn’t such a great idea – And why developing leadership is…

Steven Phillips
Steven Phillips

Question: What do all the following words have in common? Situational, Authentic, Spiritual, Transactional, Transformational, Action Centered, Adaptive, Rubbish, Servant, Hopeless, What we need here is some bloody….?

Answer: See bottom of the page  [1]

I blame my parents. I had an upbringing somewhere to the political left of Karl Mark. I don’t remember being taken to Highgate Cemetery to see his grave, but it wouldn’t have been a strange excursion in our house.

And from this egalitarian nurturing environment I come away with a naive discomfort of some people having power over others (…especially me).

So it is not surprising that I have always had a bit of a discomfort with the idea of some people being leaders and other people not. And a distrust of the idea that leaders are somehow a definable subset of a population. The more I hear it being defined, the queasier I get. There has been something that has felt plain wrong about our thinking on leadership and, like “…a splinter in the mind” it has increasingly niggled and irritated without resolution.Organisations have long worked on the premise that:

  • Leadership is a result of having people who are leaders
  • Individuals can be developed to be leaders
  • Leadership is whatever ‘good’ leaders do
  • Leadership if defined at all, is defined in broad ambiguous behaviours of people called leaders or individual leadership competencies
  • These competencies, behaviours, standards etc are sometimes created or edited by the iffy HiPPO process[2]

And the pedigree of much thinking on leadership is vested in the power structures of the past: religious, political, military. The constant reinvention of what leaders do or who leaders are is still in thrall to ‘the great man’ view of history. This view isolates individuals from the complex context within which they appear to succeed and then gives them undue credit for that success. Individuals are lauded for their success, at least until history decides that perhaps the firebombing of Dresden or the unintentional over exposure to sub-prime mortgages or a voracious acquisition trail wasn’t such a great idea after all.

So in order to tease that splinter out of my mind, here’s an alternative view of leadership development. What if:

  • Leadership is not a characteristic of individuals or “special” ability
  • Leadership is a set of outcomes achieved in an organisation
  • Leadership is a quality of the experience that people have of the organisation
  • In essence leadership is a process or a function
  • For any organisation, the desired outcomes of leadership can be defined
  • The organisation can have leadership by developing its processes of leadership (or its leadership function), rather than ‘developing leaders’

So an organisation can decide that it wants people to feel led, and that ‘being led’ means, for example: having clarity of direction, a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning, feeling inspired, acting prudently, being innovative or other similar feelings/behaviours. It can then decide that achieving these outcomes can be made a clear business intent. And the means can then be designed for delivering that intent.

Leadership in this new perspective includes working on organisational communication, engagement processes & capability, and perhaps most importantly some clear responsibilities of people managers. People managers would have a clear responsibility for ensuring their people had clarity of direction, sense of purpose, inspiration to uphold the organisational values etc etc. The next step is an important one. The next step is to expect managers to contribute their part in delivering these leadership outcomes in whatever way works for them and their people! And that is instead of telling them the one way they are expected to be ‘a leader’. Doesn’t sound too outrageous to me.

On the one hand it could feel as reductive as saying that leadership can be made as procedural as moving premises. But on the other hand it is saying that if clarity, inspiration, meaning and purpose areso important why would you not design them more rigorously in to the way you run your business? The current alternative is that we relegate them to a nebulous and indirect process of developing individual leaders?

This nebulous process then operates a little like a dark art in which all manner of slightly dodgy psychology, neuroscience, sociology and spirituality is co-opted to be sprinkled over the top in pursuit of credibility. And as part of the denial that the question of “How we develop leaders?” has no answer.

If the status quo on leadership really worked then wouldn’t the national survey figures we see published every day about how people feel about being employed, led and managed be a little better than they are?

[1] Answer: They can all precede the word, ‘Leadership’

[2] Highest Paid Person’s Opinion