Why leadership development is broken within organisations

Never have we had more literature and research on leadership development. Every industry talks about its importance and leading organizations and academic institutions invest billions in its research. Yet, most indicators we have to measure global leadership impact are saying we are worse off today than ever before. So what’s broken? Why in a generation that values and invests heavily in its leaders, do we keep failing?

To begin unpacking this dilemma, it first requires an understanding of how these leadership programmes are designed. Often filled with all-star employees who consistently out-perform others within the organisation, these hand selected individuals are given access to global opportunities, mountains of psychometrics tests and a plethora of leadership training and coaching.   On the surface, it sounds like the right formula for success, however, there is a key ingredient to this approach that is missing.

Leadership development programmes typically focus on two aspects of what should be a three-pronged framework. The first element is the WHAT. These are the behaviours demonstrated by the employee. These include self-assessments, or more accurately psychometric tests and 360 feedback to better understand themselves and how others are perceiving them. These tests are incredibly valuable for better self-awareness and impact on others, however this is only one part of the equation.

The second focus of these programs is on the HOW. How do we address the limitations as identified in the psychometric tests and 360s? This often takes the form of training, executive education programmes, mentoring, and executive coaches. Hands-on integration of this new found theory into everyday working life should result in substantial results, but the sad truth is that any change in behaviour is short lived and most professionals revert back to their original mode of operation within a year of the intervention.

What is often missing is the WHY. Why do we behave the way we do and what is ultimately the meaning each individual attaches to the behaviours demonstrated. A metaphor I often draw on when speaking to corporate clients about the need to examine the why – is the marathon runner. A fine specimen of health and fitness, this individual has developed and fine-tuned their body to deliver a very specific result. Now put these same, near perfect specimens of health in a baseball game, they are likely to underperform. Over time, if you continue to force these athletes to use their bodies and minds in a way that is different from their training, most are likely to lose engagement.

Much like the managers we have in organisations, employees fine-tune their skills in order to achieve a certain result. As the organisation keeps changing the goal posts (e.g. the sport), we assume these managers will continue to thrive in the way they once did. What is missing is an understanding of what they want for themselves and what they are mentally prepared to work for.

By focusing on the why, or more accurately the meaning – we understand a few important things. First, we understand why these employees behave the way they do. Why do they have such high expectations for themselves? What is the series of life events that have allowed them to operate at higher levels than their peers? We also understand how they are programmed. In most cases, these employees have developed extraordinary coping skills at dealing with uncertainty, fear, anxiety and challenge. While others may crumble in the face of such odds, these employees often find themselves at their best. We often attribute this to some non-quantifiable aspect of their personality but the truth is, there is hard science behind what makes them that way.

 Ultimately, the brain forms through our life experiences. It is this formation that influences how we see and process the world around us. When wanting to create behavioural change, it implies a re-calibration of how the person sees the world and themselves within it. While in some cases, these changes may seem small, the reality is that the person is trying to reverse a lifetime of self-fulfilling views. If you spent every day of your adult life focused on being an excellent marathon runner and then one day someone tells you to be a baseball player, it’s not a simple matter of substitution of goals, but a re-examination of what your life’s journey means and how you identify with what you do.

Change is hard and impossible to optimise, but is a necessity in the world we live. Therefore, organizations need to ask themselves ‘how do we help employees change on a more personal level and is that change fair to ask’?

Posted by: Saba Hasanie