Much leadership development attention has and still is focused on leadership competencies and leadership qualities.
I believe this unhelpfully perpetuates the notion that leadership exists somehow inside a leader – as if you could shake a leader and empty out his or her leadership stuff. The focus in leadership development on giving leaders tools can increase this sense of leaders building up their leadership arsenal and then going around firing it off.
It seems much more true to me that leadership exists between a leader and his/her people and context. Leadership is co-created and the outcomes of leadership (arguably the clarity, motivation and action of followers) are what defines whether leadership is happening.
Evidence suggests that leadership success is not necessarily transportable into different organisational contexts – that if you win in one company, you are not guaranteed success in another. Evidence also suggests that if you want to predict leadership success, analysis of character traits is much less useful than analysis of reputation. Put more simply – no matter what your qualities, it’s what others think of you that gets you followed or resisted, hired or fired.
What does this mean for leadership development? I think it means much less focus on the leader as a person and more focus on what gets created between that leader and others. Yes, development of leadership is to some extent individual – it involves self-reflection and clarity of purpose but when it comes to getting results leadership is primarily a relational practice. As such the development of leaders should be and I believe will become more focused on:
- Immersive contact and connection with customers and stakeholders in order to develop insight
- Dialogue, listening and connection with followers in order to generate the outcomes of leadership in dialogue
- Getting real time feedback from others on impact, influence and reputation as the principal data source for personal development
- Working with coaches and facilitators live on real challenges and in relationship with peers and colleagues rather than in classrooms talking about leadership. Pairs coaching and team coaching are excellent examples of how leadership development can happen in real time between people.