Skip to content

Rethinking leadership development

I want you to imagine for a moment being in a role you love. One that draws on your natural talents, combined with the things you are truly passionate about; one in which you are growing, as well as progressing. Imagine working with an equally passionate team. And, having enough time to think and do, while having plenty of time to live a healthy, fun life outside of work.

Am I dreaming?

It’s certainly an easy first reaction.

But what if life is meant to be this way? What if doing the things we love and are good at is how life should be? Enjoying our lives, enjoying our relationships, being healthy. What if somewhere along the line we’d been shown how to find the life that was right for us and were helped to develop the skills to make it a reality?

This is the role of leadership. Self-leadership and leadership of others. Let me explain.

Leadership is, in fact, about leverage. Leveraging the resources we have available – human and otherwise – to achieve a goal. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that the goals of organisations would be better served if our human resources were healthy, happy and having a positive impact on society. The role of leadership therefore, whether it be for ourselves or others, is threefold: (1) Creating a vision that we buy into; (2) Creating a plan that works; and (3) Creating environments where people thrive.

Enter a different kind of leadership development

As discussed in part one, traditional leadership development has been of the playbook variety. And, not only that, it’s also been in very short supply, reserved mainly for the most senior leaders in an organisation. In other words, the people who are already flying the plane; people who are already in charge of creating the environments in which we will either thrive, or not.

Not only is it madness (who would send a pilot to flying school after we’d given them the keys to the plane?), it also doesn’t work. It doesn’t equip leaders to face current challenges and it doesn’t show us how to live lives where we can thrive. Which is why it’s time for change. It’s time to change what, how and when we develop our leaders.

Let’s start with the ‘what’

Over the last 25 years I’ve had countless conversations with organisations looking to develop their leaders and I can safely say that most of them begin with a list of skills they want their leaders to develop. It makes sense – skills affect behaviour and behaviour drives results. The challenge is, focusing on skill development in this way won’t create the change they’re looking for, and it certainly won’t enable leaders to lean into today’s challenges.

To succeed they need two things: a foundation of game-changing knowledge and then a new and relevant set of skills that helps them use their new-found knowledge. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about industry or role-specific knowledge. I’m talking about the kind of deep, ever-present knowledge that fundamentally changes your experience of life and the leader you become.

Knowledge, such as a deep understanding of the nature of leadership, comes in all shapes and sizes and extraordinary leadership is experienced only when a group of people are operating from their unique strength. It’s about understanding what kind of leader we were born to be, how to stand in our own personal power and how to create environments where others can do the same.

It’s about knowing, for example, the difference between living inside out or outside in. In other words, knowing that it’s our reaction to what’s going on around us that determines our experience of life, as opposed to what is actually happening. It’s about using our most powerful tool – our mind – to work ‘for us’, rather than ‘against us’, and in doing so, change how we feel and the environments we create for ourselves and others.

It’s about knowing our opinion is just our opinion – it isn’t right or wrong, it’s just the result of the data we have acquired over our lifetime; in the same way the person who disagrees with you has acquired theirs. It’s the understanding that allows us to become courageous learners – with the resilience, curiosity and comfort with change that the leaders of today need to survive.

So, when we are talking about the ‘what’ of leadership development, we’re talking about putting in place a deep understanding of how we and others work. The kind of understanding that allows us to show up differently; to show up better. And it’s this solid, safe, game-changing foundation that provides the platform upon which the essential skills can be developed.

Skills such as building intentional relationships – at distance, across cultures and time zones; one- to-one relationships, team and stakeholder relationships. Skills such as how to embrace constant change, letting go of past perceptions and envisioning a different future. Skills like creating environments of genuine wellbeing – as opposed to the kind of ‘managed wellbeing’ environments most organisations seem to be striving for today, and, of course, the skill of leading transformation, while also attending to the day job. All of them crucial, but not possible without the fundamental knowledge that supports this kind of transformative learning.

The question, then, is how?

How do we create learning interventions that put this game-changing knowledge in place and develop the skills that today’s leaders need?

  1. First, we need to understand it’s personal. Leadership and life are not separate. They’re the same. The first leadership job all of us get is the job of leading our own lives. Therefore, if we want to create genuinely brilliant leaders, we have to get personal. Becoming the leader you were born to be means deeply understanding who you are – your talents, passions, values and beliefs. It means looking at the thinking and behavioural patterns you have already created – the ones that make you stronger and the ones that limit you. It means having the courage to face the impact of your behaviour, good and bad, and looking closely at the excuses you use not to change. It is confronting, it is liberating, and it is not for the faint hearted.
  2. We need people to ‘choose in’. It’s for this reason, and many more, that any leadership development must be a choice. None of the usual, ‘You’ve got to a certain level and now you get to go on this programme.’ That’s akin to having an MOT on an annual basis – no engagement required, just something to tick off the list. Learning, however, must be a choice. No one can force you to learn and change, you have to choose it – and without that component, it is likely to fail. On the other hand, when we have to think about what it requires from us, and prove we deserve the investment, we show up with a totally different energy, focus and openness to learning. It’s in this way you create a learning council of open-minded courageous learners – and it is this community of change-makers that will drive positive change within your business.
  1. Radical support. Radical challenge. Genuine change requires a certain kind of learning environment. It requires us to work at a level of depth and honesty that mean leaders take genuine ownership for who they are, the thinking and behaviour they choose and the impact they have. This in turn means taking ownership for their own development, their wellbeing, and the relationships they form. All of which requires coaches and facilitators who are true experts, not only in the content, but in creating environments of radical support and challenge – environments where people feel psychologically safe enough to question their own thinking and behavioural patterns, as well as brave enough to try out new ways of being.
  2. Relevant now. Another key element of the ‘how’ is the fact that leadership development needs to be relevant now. In other words, it must be both challenge-led and pragmatic. Traditional leadership development is often theoretical – teaching models and processes that whilst (sometimes) made intellectual sense, didn’t actually help people change thinking and behaviour in the moment. When learning is delivered through the lens of the challenges leaders are facing now, something magical happens – as learning and challenges come together, a new kind of clarity emerges. The bottom line is that nothing changes unless behaviour changes, so by allowing leaders to experience learning through their live challenges, and then giving them the tools in the moment to make a better choices, we are creating the neural pathways necessary to create a new behaviour.
  3. Multi-dimensional, integrated learning. The final key piece is how learning is structured. Learning has changed. If we want to learn something today, the choice is endless: google, videos, books, podcasts, courses, like-minded communities. How you structure your learning intervention therefore must emulate this as much as possible. What hasn’t changed, however, is the need for professional development to be integrated into the fabric of the business. For your leaders to create change within your business they’ll need networks, platforms, and channels – so building this in will be essential. The truth is, so much development is done in isolation. It’s all very ‘happy clappy’ at the time, but leaves a bad taste when delegates come back and realise no one is listening to their brilliant ideas or encouraging them to challenge the status quo. Knowing how they will integrate their learning back into the business is key.

Which leads us to the ‘when’

When is the right time to develop your leaders? And the answer? Now. All the time. At every level. In school. In university. When they graduate. Before they get promoted. After they get promoted. While they are leading, before they lead. Now.

Because here’s the thing. We need to stop thinking about leadership development as a linear path. It’s not a case of getting to a certain level before you learn how to use your mind in the most powerful way. You don’t have to wait until you are 38 to learn about effective teams; or wait until you’ve already caused chaos to learn how to choose your behaviour or to embrace change. This is the kind of life-changing, fundamental learning that makes a massive difference at any age, and ideally should be running through your organisation as a cultural backbone. A backbone that would give you a common leadership language (for yourself and others) as well as ways of being that support an effective leadership culture that is future fit. It is the backbone on which all other kinds of development – role-specific, industry-specific and expert skills – can be hung, and the core of creating a truly successful business.

It’s time to recognise leadership is not a level or a title. It’s a way of being. And, if you’re going to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow, it must run through every layer of your organisation. And for that to happen, you may need to rethink how you develop your talent.





Recent Awards won by Ivy House