Three ways to make leadership development more effective

Three ways to make leadership development more effective

Looking more to leaders in uncertain times

There is always much greater focus on leaders and leadership in times of trouble than when things are moving along smoothly. But, a shift in importance doesn’t mean that leadership development suddenly becomes more effective! In the wake of the pandemic upheavals, many are asking how to make leadership development more effective, rising to emergent challenges in the ‘new normal’, VUCA landscape.

Acknowledge complexity – take a principles approach

Our first tip for making your leadership development more effective is to urge you to acknowledge the context in which leadership is occurring. For those not paying close attention to academic research in the field, it may be a surprise to learn that context is mostly ‘sanitised’ from leadership theory. This is done in pursuit of naming lists of leadership traits, attributes and even behaviours that put forward as being ‘universal’.

That universalist kind of approach may well be how chemists, for example, need to work to discover the properties of matter, which are pretty constant across contexts. ‘Leadership’, however, will never have that degree of invariance. In leadership, one size rarely (even never) fits all! Similarly, leadership theory-as-it-is rarely beds down well in practice. This is a criticism that’s often encountered in generic leadership programs that are developed from theory by ‘trainers’ with little real-world leadership experience.

With a raised awareness of complexity in general (owed with some sadness to the pandemic), there is elevated understanding that contexts matter and also that they vary, a lot! Thus, leadership behaviours too need to be adaptive. Using a principles approach to scoping fit-for-purpose leadership behaviours gives you a powerful way to provide some structure (to encourage broad consistency) without upfront over-engineering, which would most likely not be sufficiently adaptable in-context anyway.

In practice, this means developing ‘principles on a page’ type documents rather than the hefty tomes that may be factually correct but are too long for most to read, let alone absorb and implement. It’s substantially easier (and a lot more inclusive – so more chance of ownership) for leaders to distil and agree on principles of leadership, relevant to their own context. In larger organisations, this will likely mean having versions of generally accepted principles for different areas. Importantly though, rather than looking comprehensive only on glossy posters and in brochures, locally developed leadership principles are more likely to be a good fit for their context and thus embraced due to a sense of ownership.   

Focus on outcomes – align with organisational excellence

The next tip for improving leadership development initiatives is to continuously check that development efforts are aligned with desired organisational outcomes. Afterall, leadership is not practised for its own sake. Its intent is to support the organisation deliver strategic objectives in the pursuit of organisational purpose.

Researchers and practitioners working in the field of organisational excellence have developed a range of organisational excellence frameworks over the past few decades. In fact, there is even now the ISO 9000 (International Standards Organisation) family of standards for Quality Management Systems. While organisations might not want to get into the nitty gritty of any standards, it’s likely that leaders will be aiming for excellence in the key areas the standards identify: customer focus; leadership; engagement of people; process approach; improvement; evidence-based decision making and relationship management.

Ultimately, leaders strive for organisational excellence. Leadership excellence, which is more than ‘leadership’, is aimed at delivering organisational excellence. At a high level, leaders working in an organisational (and even team) context need to focus on outcomes in three broad leadership excellence functions.

Leadership itself, from the perspective of ‘influencing (and inspiring) others towards a common goal’, is one of the functions. But, leadership in organisational contexts is much more than just ‘leading’! Failing to recognise the other functions will severely hamper the pursuit of organisational excellence.

From a performance and practice perspective, leading is not synonymous with managing and the second leadership excellence function is managing. Managing involves consideration of desired organisational outcomes, creating plans for getting there and then monitoring and evaluating implementation. Thanks to a desire to rebrand managers as leaders in the 1960’s (where nothing really changed in those roles except the labelling), the important function of managing is often misconstrued. Many don’t understand the history of the ‘branding’ change and, mistakenly and at great cost to organisational excellence, diminish – and see as less worthy – the function of managing. Truth is, to be a good leader you ought also to be good at managing and vice versa. 

But wait, there’s more to ‘leadership excellence’ than only the leading and managing functions. Although it’s always been an item, in the past few decades there has been a surge in focus on governance. Sadly, attention has often been prompted by spectacular failures of governance, where organisations and/or individuals intentionally did the wrong, often unethical, thing for dubious motives and ends. Governance is a vital part of a ‘leaders’ role, not only at senior levels of management but also (in a context-appropriate way) at other levels in the organisation.

Ultimately, you ought to be developing leadership excellence – where individuals take context-appropriate actions that exhibit good leadership, good management and good governance to deliver positive organisational (and societal, as appropriate) outcomes.  

Combine a complexity approach and outcomes focus for continuous leadership improvement

Mindful of context, including variability, use the principles / organisational excellence factors you identify as beacons that help align leadership intent and actions. Just as mariners rely on the lighthouse or beacon in their own local area (rather than others more distant) for navigation, ensure your leaders have a beacon or beacons that are relevant to and fit for their own context.

In similar vein, when conditions in the local waters change, instances of navigation may need to change. But it’s likely the beacon will continue to serve as a trusted constant, no matter the conditions. Adjusted actions and behaviours are ultimately still aligned with the beacon.

Having a set of leadership excellence principles, which are regularly evaluated for fit to current context, will help your leaders stay the course, even as they vary specific actions and behaviours. With strong and aligned leadership, management and governance, your organisational objectives and purpose have the best chance of being realised. In this way, leadership excellence will deliver organisational excellence.


Actions to improve leadership development

  1. Move from a narrow view of leadership to one that embraces leadership, management and governance (a leadership excellence perspective).
  2. Acknowledge that your organisation is a complex context – so detailed lists of leadership attributes and behaviours will likely be less effective than a few solid leadership excellence principles that allow aligned behaviours to emerge in context. At a local level, leaders will develop more detail.
  3. Engage your leaders (and your people in general) in developing a few principles that will serve as a beacon for actions and behaviour that will tend to move the organisation more to where it wants to be and away from less desired states. 
  4. Evaluate your leadership excellence principles regularly, to ensure they still fit with the context as it stands. Contexts change over time and will likely be better served by principles that are adjusted accordingly.
  5. Taking the ideas listed above, base your leadership development support on facilitating these ends and then helping develop leadership skills and behaviours that closely fit current context. Be ready and responsive to support change when the context changes.

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