When you need Leadership Delivery, Leadership Development is not the answer

There are a few reasons why organisations seek leadership development, but we’d argue that in a commercial environment the only good reason is to improve sustainable organisational performance.


So all the more shocking to find that there is no robust evidence to support the belief that leadership development programmes result in increased organisation-wide performance. It might be worth taking a moment to read that last sentence again – it is a biggy.


We went and got a proper grown-up independent researcher (currently at the Policy Institute at King’s College London), untainted by assumptions about leadership development practice and theory, to review the research in this area. The result? There is no reliable, robust evidence of systemic impact. If leadership development were a new drug claiming to have an impact on business performance, it wouldn’t get a licence!


We commissioned this research because:


  1. There is a growing recognition that leadership development, as it has been practiced for decades, does not feel sufficiently effective – and ‘sticking it all online’ is not a cost-effective panacea for its poor value
  2. It is suspicious, to say the least, that after 80 years of research into leadership there is no clear and commonly agreed definition of what it even is!
  3. It is not clear in most organisations who ‘the leaders’ are! (That one typically brings a wry smile to the face of L&D professionals who are used to the highly politicised uncertainty about exactly who is and isn’t the target audience for a programme). Is it the senior leaders? And/or the middle managers? And/or all people managers? Or is it the ever-popular ‘leaders at all levels’?
  4. Most organisations have begun to recognise that their last two or three leadership models, competency frameworks, leadership behaviours, leadership principles, leadership manifestos etc etc DID NOT BECOME THE TRUTH ABOUT THE WAY PEOPLE BEHAVE AROUND HERE (sorry about the capitals but, in fairness, if I was in the room with you I probably would be shouting around about now).


So for the last year we have been doing what we always do when faced with unquestioned ineffective orthodoxy – developing some refreshing but insanely practical heresy.


The orthodoxy is that developing leaders to meet some ideal of how they should behave, who they should be or what they should believe will result in a specific desired impact on the people of your organisation, their performance and the performance of the business. The evidence reveals that this is an unsubstantiated belief system, and that it does not deliver in practice. Our research illuminated the reasons why not:


  • There is little or no clarity about what impact on performance is expected to be delivered;
  • There is little or no understanding of any cause and effect mechanisms by which performance will be affected;
  • Given the above two points, there is little or no real feedback on actual business impact;
  • Given the above three points there is little or no consequence for poor individual leadership performance.


So we have developed an alternative perspective – one that starts, not with a focus upon the ambiguous group of people described as ‘leaders’, but with the users of leadership, i.e. your people, the people who you need to have a specific experience of leadership that sustainably increases their performance and the performance of your business.


In our approach Leadership now becomes…


  1. The delivery of a specific, valuable and consistent user-experience (UX) to your people, the Users of Leadership
  2. A cyclical system that develops, delivers and assures the leadership your business needs now and for the future
  3. A day-to-day function built in to the organisation, with measurable impact and individual accountability


Business leaders, above all, like this approach for a number of very obvious reasons:


  • It shifts the focus from the nebulous and hard-to-measure behaviours of some people to the delivery of clear, consistent and measureable experiences to all people
  • Managers of people at all levels now know what it is they are required and expected to deliver, and are not confused about who and how they are supposed to be or how they are supposed to behave
  • The alignment with business strategy is absolute, direct and alive to change over time


Over the last year we have been delivering this approach to companies both large and small (80,000 people and 200 people), global and national, heavy industry and leading-edge high-growth tech. At both ends of all of these scales it simply works and works simply.


If you’d like to hear more about how this quiet revolution in leadership works in practice then we’d be delighted to come along and walk you through the process, illustrating it with some real life cases. Just email Steven Phillips at steven@ideasunlimited.com.