Leadership Development’s Epic Fail

Most leadership development programs have a critical weakness — they view leaders as sets of competencies, not individuals. The work of University of Chicago professor Linda Ginzel shows how this can change.

The arc of our understanding of leaders and leadership runs from the few predestined heroes of Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory to a leadership development industry that trains millions and generates more than $14 billion in revenue annually in the United States alone. As much as the growth of programs and budgets has democratized the expectations of leaders and leadership development, the idealization of leaders from Carlyle’s days remains enshrined in complicated charts of compulsory competencies.

There is, however, a quiet, ongoing movement that pushes back against such standardization. It rejects many of the tired bromides that cascade through Twitter and populate posters designed to motivate but that are more likely to prompt eye rolls from those they hope to inspire. It draws upon various scientific disciplines to help increase both individualization and contextualization of leadership development. Think of it akin to the maker movement versus industrial production. The former allows for a great deal of customization and iteration while the latter is focused on stamping out millions of identical parts. You can see the divergent expressions by comparing the forced conformity of high school yearbook photos of the 1950s to the dramatically creative selfies on Instagram — they are all photographs of people, though the two sets are worlds apart in appearance and intent.

Two principal drivers are effecting change: One is the increased complexity of the context in which leaders must lead. The linearity of the hierarchical industrial age has given way to the networked dynamism of the digital economy. There has been a shift in the nature of the age, a phrase I borrow from Joshua Cooper Ramo, a corporate advisor who has deep experience in both the U.S. and China. In his best-selling book The Seventh Sense, Ramo describes the differences between Western and Eastern approaches to strategy: Westerners ask, “What’s the goal?” while the Chinese ask, “What is the nature of the age?” Is it one of stability or revolution? Discovery or a more inward focus?

In other words, the fundamental considerations are the underlying forces shaping political, economic, and social currents of the time — and the challenges for those who aspire to lead.

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