Trends in Leadership Development: 2015

We are often asked what we are seeing and hearing now about the future of leadership development, as it is the subject of our everyday conversations with clients operating globally in a wide range of sectors. What is happening in the world of leadership development? What is next in leadership development? What is new in leadership development? What are other people doing?

Given that there is arguably nothing new under the sun, what I will focus on here is how we are seeing our clients’ attention shifting.


Five Trends in The Future of Leadership Development

1) Applied Leadership Development

We’d have to acknowledge a little bias here. There is clearly waning interest in leadership as an academic subject, a discourse concerned with identifying the ‘right way to lead that works’, the reductive analysis of Business School professors who teach a prescription for successful leadership.

Executive Education (the clue is in the title) is giving way to what we describe as Applied Leadership Development, development that uses the organisation’s real ambitions and challenges as vehicles of development for your cohorts. It is not the easiest route to take but it is the most effective. Designing programmes that meld into the fabric of your organisation and the real day-to-day work of your participants requires much more thought and involvement of the business than sending people off for a few days residential re-programming. But it is inherently more embedded, more relevant, more transformational and more integrated than the alternatives.

It is also possible that we are being asked more and more about this because this is what we do.

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices” William James

2) End of Fads

Even if ‘trends’ are the un-escapable consequences of attention shifting from one aspect of a subject to another, ‘fads’ seem to have slowly curled up and died – thank goodness. By fads I am referring to the next “me-too” panacea to install in the organisation, as if it will cure all known ills, repel bad spirits, create a good harvest, bring the rains, ensure leadership virility and vanquish our competitors. Development now seems to be more healthily eclectic, reflecting the shift in individual fashion from cat-walk clones to a desire for timeless personal identity. At least that is what the fashion gurus are telling us we all want.

3) Home-grown answers

Fitting right alongside the ‘end of fads’ is the growing belief that the answer to leadership does not lie outside the organisation somewhere, waiting to be identified and implemented. The financial crash exposed the fallacy that there is ‘a right way to lead’ that you simply need to find and apply.

More often we are being asked to help clients distil the essence of their own leadership and amplify it throughout the organisation. This is not the same as the more hackneyed codification of ‘what the best leaders do’ into a set of leadership competencies, behaviours, guidelines or other form of social engineering. This is a more nuanced desire to deeply understand “When we have effective leadership taking place here, what is really going on and what can we learn from it?”

There seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with those all-too-common lists of 6 to 9 things that you are supposed to do if you are a leader. One possible reason for the concern about their relevance is their irrelevance. I am not suggesting that these lists are not driven by a great deal of positive intent. I am suggesting that the lists rarely if ever become the truth about the organisation. Once you have seen 3 or 4 different frameworks for leadership come and go over the last ten to 15 years in your organisation, and not seen one of them become the consistent truth about the organisation, you can be forgiven for thinking they might not be all that meaningful.

4) Leaders as Teachers or Leader-led Development

If you manage people and you are not responsible for the development of their performance, then what exactly do you do? Police their performance? Report on their performance? Provide feedback (but not development) about their performance?

The desire to see leaders taking the stage in the development of others, is a desire probably heard more from their Learning & Development, Leadership Development or OD professionals, than from the leaders themselves. It would be fair to say that we are not being trampled underfoot by the rush of business leaders themselves, at any level, clamouring to be involved in the development or delivery of programmes.

Nevertheless there is a growing recognition that if there is to be more development consciously and deliberately being delivered in the ‘70’ of the 70:20:10 ratio[1] then line managers need to be motivated, equipped and enabled to do the job. Incidentally sending managers a set of slides and giving them a deadline by which to have presented it to their people, doesn’t qualify as “…motivated, equipped and enabled”.

5) Leadership team development as a vehicle for OD and change

As you can imagine this is also an area in which there is not a stampede of leadership team members demanding support to work together on their collective performance.

But there is a growing number of development professionals who are seeking ways to engage their leadership teams in their own development. Our experience has been that this frequently has to have an element of stealth about it; development processes that have an imperceptible profile that flies under the leaders’ its-about-them-not-me radar.

When senior teams do focus on the development of their own collective performance, recognising that the way they show up in the organisation communicates more than any other channel ever does, the client’s results are always formidable.


[1] Ideal ratio of learning & development delivery is 70% from challenging work, 20% from other people in the workforce and 10% from programmes, courses, reading etc. McCall, Lombardo, Eichinger, Centre for Creative Leadership, 1996