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Key trends in Leadership Development

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Leadership Development (LD), along with Culture and Engagement, heads the list of global concerns in Human Capital Management.  It is also where companies consider themselves least ready to meet their needs.  

As a result, LD is the focus of much thinking about the right directions to take. It is a time of change for LD and a good time for businesses to take stock.  We have drawn on our own and others’ research and experience to highlight some of the key trends shaping the future of LD.

Key trends shaping the future of LD

1. Leadership development is now integral to business strategy and change. It is becoming more urgent and a source of real business advantage.  

The rationale for LD is not only changing; it’s also becoming more compelling.  In today’s world of VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – the idea of the heroic leader is untenable.   No individual can know, do or control enough to enable a whole organisation to respond effectively in such an environment. A business’s success now depends on its agility, adaptability and creativity.   And that’s a step change because it means leadership sees engagement not just as an enabler but as a real market advantage and a differentiator.   Today’s leader aims to help their people to succeed.   So, much of the LD that is emerging is about democratising leadership – it’s about leaders creating more leaders, not followers.

At its best, LD also addresses broader business transformation. When strategy changes then LD must respond, taking a forward view of what will be demanded of leadership, both to operate the future business and to get there from today.

Finally, too many LD participants have struggled to apply their learning or to operate in new ways because their organisation’s failure to change has thrown obstacles in their way.   In future, effective LD will be accompanied by organisational, process and policy adaptations that support desired new behaviours and capabilities. 

2. Leadership is now about the person as much as the skills and is quite simply becoming more demanding. It is also being exercised increasingly by those outside conventionally defined leader roles. LD needs to be, more than ever, truly developmental and less instructional.

New perspectives on why leadership matters and what it takes to lead will drive the content of LD, while retaining the best of past and current practice.  The emerging view of LD content emphasises being, thinking and doing.

There is a new focus on being authentic and on self-awareness and self-management as keys to gaining the respect and trust of others.  This underscores the maturity required to lead and to balance one’s true self against the occasional need to be tactical in one’s behaviour with others.   And understanding behaviour, one’s own and other people’s, is vital in anticipating and managing its effects – on relationships, team working, processes and decision-making.

When it comes to thinking, the ‘vertical’ dimension of the leadership experience – the transformations of mindset that is needed as a leader’s organisational level increases – is now the focus for much LD work.  This must complement ‘horizontal’ broadening as the leader’s reach expands, which in turn depends on comprehending organisations as whole systems to be influenced by ‘reading’ the context and identifying implications, linkages and points of leverage.  And leaders must think globally and embrace diversity, understanding how to interact across distance, cultures and generations.

Then there’s the ever-widening and demanding range of doing.  Leading organisational transformation and change is now a constant and emergent process.   The leader is a coach and a developer of other people while being a coachee, learning from others and seeking feedback.   She or he must network energetically and work collaboratively.   And they must prioritise creativity, innovation and an environment that supports learning, encourages experimentation and allows for (the right sort of) failure.

Most LD content will continue to focus on those who lead teams, permanent or project-based, or larger groups.   But it will concern itself increasingly with the leadership exercised by individuals at all levels where direction-setting, energising, creativity and problem-solving enable anyone to magnify their own impact and influence the business.

3. The way LD is delivered is being changed by strategic and economic considerations, social upheaval, new technological channels and a different view of content. The imperative now is to provide leadership development that produces a sustained impact.

Learning interventions are being based on more rigorous analysis of context and need.   There will be less emphasis on a deterministic curriculum and on providing individuals with general leadership education for imagined future senior roles. And there’s much more interest in measuring the results of LD, not just evaluating participants’ impressions.  There’s a demand for clearer definition of the impact which LD is intended to have on the business and the individual, coupled with more explicit metrics to measure LD progress and outcomes – not only enabling improvements in LD, but focusing LD investment in what is proven to work.

Leadership development is also being seen and designed as a driver for change and as a critical component of organisational change programmes.   Content is related to a firm’s business strategy rather than to leadership theory and may include new forms of action-learning which seek real business outcomes and new LD-driven projects which are mined for insights and routes to improvement.

Businesses are combining pragmatism with ambition, increasingly starting with ‘what do our leaders need now’ and then moving to ‘what makes sense next’.  But they are also starting leadership development early in people’s careers, not mainly when they stand on the threshold of senior leadership.  There is even greater emphasis on the use of feedback and coaching, not only to reinforce the outcomes from specific learning interventions, but also as a long-term process for deriving learning from individuals’ and teams’ real leadership experiences.

Collective leadership and the team are increasingly seen as a focus for leadership development, not simply team-building. Yet, at the same time, there is more emphasis on individual responsibility for development, coupled with greater personalisation of the development experience.

Programmes increasingly step beyond the classroom to combine multiple approaches and means of delivery including technology-based solutions such as blended learning, mobile and remote learning and ‘gamification’ – the fusing of simulation with enhanced motivation to learn.   Although some of these methods and channels appeal for reasons of cost or flexibility of access, they also address LD’s other current pre-occupation, designing LD experiences so that the learning ‘sticks’.

And that takes us back to our starting point, the new strategic relevance and urgency of LD. If people’s LD experiences don’t stimulate learning that stays with them and is applied to the benefit of the business, then it’s not working.  And the reality is that by that measure much, perhaps most, of ‘traditional’ LD investment has produced little proven long-term payoff. 

4. Like leaders themselves, LD is being asked to do better and to demonstrate its value. By making the most of emerging trends, LD professionals can make a truly strategic contribution to their organisations.

Not all of the trends around the why, what and how of Leadership Development are new.   The biggest trend of all may simply be that many long-discussed ideas are now being translated, simultaneously, into reality – driven by the perception that leadership matters now more than ever.

The implication for those who exercise any form of leadership is that their LD experience is going to change.  It will become both more relevant and more demanding.

And there will clearly be a challenge for LD professionals to be even more rigorous in their analysis of what is needed and what works and even more creative in designing, orchestrating and managing LD programmes as drivers of performance and change.

If you’d like to learn more about Kiddy’s expertise in Leadership Development please contact us.

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