Why are we so bad at developing effective leaders?

Wendy Lord says leadership training needs a well-aimed kick up the derrière.

A journalist once told me that he wasn’t interested in writing about leadership because everyone defines it differently, so no-one can pin it down. How can we develop something when we can’t agree on what it is?

Nevertheless, leadership is an issue taken seriously in learning and development and HR. Sixty-five per cent of respondents to the 2005 CIPD training and development survey said they believe there is a shortage of highly effective leaders in UK organisations, and 31% of them felt that their organisations’ leadership activities were ‘not very effective’. Predictable maybe, but it’s very disappointing as we cannot continue being so bad at producing a decent crop of future leaders.

Time was when being a good business leader meant ordering people around – think Sir Alan Sugar – and men seemed to be better at this. Then times moved on and ‘softer’ skills became more important: understanding what makes people tick to motivate and empower them were seen as the key leadership strengths, which appeared to give the advantage to women.

But as fashions changed, people adapted to them. Men responded to training programmes that called for them to be more ’emotionally intelligent’ at work. At the same time, as women gained more powerful positions in the workplace, they became more dominant. Both genders are capable of adapting their style to the broad pervading culture of the business world. But frankly that isn’t enough.

The fact is that – whatever the culture – all leadership styles work some of the time and no one leadership style is right all the time. The best leaders are able to judge which style is appropriate for each particular circumstance and can move away from their preferred method when they need to. Depending on the specific decision at hand, good leaders must be capable of varying how they arrive at their decisions and the strategies they employ and empower to gain the best result. This ability to judge which style and strategies will work best in a given situation is called leadership wisdom, and it is this facility that makes the difference.

While most people these days acknowledge the importance of the need to be flexible in style, most leadership development programmes still fail to teach or train people how to do it. Delegates are not taught how to judge the right style to adopt at different decision points. Some leadership courses seem to go no further than helping people recognise their style, along with its strengths and weaknesses. The reason for this has simply been the lack of a way of defining and measuring how such wise leadership judgements are made, until now.

Thanks to psychometrics, we have a way of measuring leadership wisdom – the ability to adopt a range of strategies or styles. Even more importantly, as we can now measure this leadership wisdom, we can develop it through training and coaching programmes.

Until more leadership development programmes adopt this approach, disheartening statistics like those from the CIPD will prevail. It’s time for companies to start developing leadership wisdom in their people, rather than simply focusing on the latest fashion in leadership style.

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