Leadership Development for the future

Leadership development is big business. Millions of dollars are spent on researching leadership, publishing innumerable books and training aspiring leaders. In spite of this there are many more examples of poor leadership than effective leadership. Organisational leadership development is not producing effective organisational leaders. Around the globe in all facets of organisational life, people are asking what is going wrong.

The question is: what should leadership development of the future look like?

This white paper draws on the themes that have emerged from the high level topics of many hours of coaching conversations with leaders and validated by up-to-date industry research. While leadership development practices have changed little in the last thirty years, the context and situation of leadership has changed dramatically. This paper explores the state of current leadership programs and proposes four developments areas for inclusion:

Future Developments

  1. Leadership as a networked activity:

Individual development is not enough in the current environment. Leadership is a social relationship. A leaders’ success depends on others succeeding. This means a greater focus on the leader/follower role- interdependence with particular emphasis on the everyday practice of most leaders: engaging followers in conversation.

  1. Leadership Learning as Real Time Development

Most people in senior leadership positions in organisations have be participants in competency based leadership programs. When they return to work it is business as usual. While there is a place for competency-based formal learning, it is minimal. The most important learning is informal, real time, on the job learning that is based on individual learning needs.

  1. Leadership as a democratic activity

Leadership can no longer be seen as simply an individual activity.   Leaders emerge from a collective process or networks and alliances. Making these more explicit enables the conditions of democratising leadership.

  1. Leadership as mindfulness.

Leading others involves responsibility and privilege. Mindfulness is rarely connected with effective leaders, however the individual responsibility that anyone assigned to a leadership role has is to model for the culture leadership that enables others’ leadership.        


  1. The Current Situation: The context and scope of organisations has changed
  2. Current Approaches in Leadership development practices
  3. Themes emerging from coaching leaders
  4. What industry research tells us
  5. Future Developments for Practice


The Current Situation

Over the last 15 years the scope and complexity or organisations has markedly changed. The advent of technology has meant that people are connected in ways that was unimaginable thirty years ago making the boundaries of organisations and therefore leadership practices to be defined differently in every sense.

  1. Geographic, cultural and economic boundaries have changed dramatically with most large organisations operating across international borders. This has shifted the leadership in important ways towards agile thinking and cultural sensibility
  1. Technology has led to the democratisation of knowledge with many more people having access to international knowledge banks.
  1. Demographic shifts have forced many baby boomer leaders to recognise that with the democratisation of knowledge and the advent of social media, they can no longer operate in the directive leadership approaches that have worked in the past.
  1. Complex strategic situations are everyday leadership problems. They are too complex for an individual heroic leader with a single disciplinary expertise to solve. In the current climate strategic and systemic thinking is more valuable than strict disciplinary boundaries.
  1. Networked Leadership. The foundation of leadership in the modern era is collaboration. Organisational cultures that focus on robust conversations, negotiation and influencing skills as well as mediating conversations and complex decision making dialogues will create the leadership it requires for the situation.


Current Approaches to Leadership Development

Current approaches to leadership development have not changed in the last twenty years. Two persistent unquestioned assumptions underlie them.

  1. “Leaders are born not made”

Over the last 50 years, leadership has been about an individual – usually the lone hero who was male and endowed with charisma and expertise (and/or class and wealth) and able to direct others. This ‘male, pale and now stale’ version of leadership was rewarded through status, authority and position, which enabled it to reproduce its type, thus leading to hero leadership as still the most prevalent form of leadership today.

  1. “Leadership can be learned”

Effective leadership is reduced by research into a set of skills that can be learned. Competency based frameworks in leadership are found in virtually every major organisation and go largely unexamined in terms of effectiveness. Training programs were designed in which leaders were fed the knowledge in chalk and talk methods of learning often as a compulsory part of their job roles. Interestingly chalk and talk methods of learning and transferring of skills have been proven as ineffective yet again they are found in most leadership development programs.

These taken-for-granted assumptions have led to two major leadership development frameworks; transactional leadership development based on identifying the chosen few individuals with attributes or innate characteristics which are measurable by psychometric profiling as the next generation of leaders; and transformational leadership development, teaching leaders to motivate others through developing sets of competencies that make up a learned “style” which can be adapted to different situations.

Most leadership programs are a combination of the two. What they both share is a focus on the individual and this is the limitation. In the current climate the cult of individualism that focuses on reducing leadership to a psychological profile is no longer relevant. The current challenges that face emerging leaders are from a loosening of the geographic, demographic borders, the breakdown of rigid power/knowledge structures and the networked nature of knowledge have led to leadership having to examine itself and adapt and change to face the complex and ethically challenging situations it finds itself in.

New and different assumptions are required.

The Experience of Leaders Today

  1. Leaders face everyday complex and difficult situations that are extremely complex with many ambiguous elements that involve not only complicated decision-making but are also a complex ethical minefield.
  2. Leaders rarely have a space to converse, reflect, be challenged in their thinking
  3. Organisational systems tend to fall into a conforming band of responses. This stifles innovation and at times makes organisations unsafe. This means taking into account accepted custom and practice but challenging it to make room for innovation,
  4. The situations are too complex for an individual to solve and having a trusted and diverse team around them is essential
  5. Virtual management is making leadership more challenging because of differing cultural norms and the unpredictability of many foreign official responses
  6. Leaders have little time for the development of self-awareness and mindfulness and many devalue its importance
  7. As leaders, they are always also followers and there is increasing networking stress from “influencing upwards” to Boards as well as sideways and downwards.


Industry Experience

Many current industry studies also propose that current leadership development practices are not sufficient in twenty-first century global complexity:

  1. An IBM study of over 1500 global CEO’s reported that their number one concern was the complexity of their environments and the inability of their organisations (and their leaders) to manage this.
  2. The DDI, 2012 Global Leadership Report found that global leaders identified that while leadership development is essential, current practices are put into question as there needs to be a shift in focus in the way leaders are developed.
  3. The 2010 trends in Executive Development confirmed that CEO’s reported that their talents and emerging leaders were not cognitively equipped to deal with complex systemic and ethical issues facing their organisations currently.
  4. Australian Demographic Challenges – an Australian Government Treasury Report identified technology and demography are major influences on organisations and that organisations are ill equipped to deal with this.
  5. A paper from the Centre for Creative Leadership that summarised interviews from a number of CEO’s and leadership development experts found that the competency-based programs of current leadership development programs were not enough in current complex environments.

Future Developments


New Assumption

The two assumptions that underlie current leadership development are not sufficient for the current environment. Future leadership development needs the basic assumption that leadership is a relational activity. The shift then is from individual competencies to creating organisational cultures in which leaders can emerge easily and seamlessly to fit the situation of the moment.  It requires a focus on the web of conversations and relationships that weave together to shape culture.

The focus of leadership development practices that respond to the 21st century environment is collaboration. At its foundation is the relationship between self and “others”, a change of focus from the individual to the interaction to which all participants are mutually contributing.

  • Leadership is a relational activity:

A leaders’ success depends on others succeeding. Leadership is therefore a relational activity. One cannot be a leader without a follower. Role- interdependence is the basis of collaboration and networked leadership in that the quality of the relationship that a leader has with the people who follow determines success.

Furthermore, the interdependence of the leader/follower role is rarely talked about, while “leadership” is on everyone’s tongue. Research abounds on how to be an effective leader, but we spend little effort or money on leadership’s essential role-mate, the follower. Leadership is snazzy, even sexy. Most of us want to be leaders. Organisational cultures are made up of an abundance of leadership “role marketing” expressed in job titles at all levels of an organisation. There are executive leaders, senior leaders, department leaders, people leaders, area leaders and team leaders. However, while there is media hype about leadership and leading, there is minimal mention of followers. Being a follower has definitely not been viewed as sexy.

While following is also a role occupied by the majority of people in an organisation, the word does not appear in any organisational job title. Social media is beginning to change this; the number of followers one has denotes one’s reputation as a thought leader in some field.

A strong follower base is crucial to driving change. All leaders need loyal followers. Followers go the extra mile. Followers express their support to others. They follow because of their support for a leader’s visions and direction. They translate vision into results.

This implies relationship. A leader retains followers be responding, acknowledging, guiding and rewarding them. What this looks like in real time is a network of conversations. Throughout any given day, thousands of conversations between leaders and their employees shape relationships and determine productivity. There is no job in an organisation that does not at some point involve conversation.

This is, in our experience such a fundamental area of leadership it is usually overlooked. Conversation styles can make or break relationships. If a conversation is shallow or leads to misunderstandings, the relationship becomes shallow and full of misunderstandings. If a conversation is lively, flowing, respectful and purposeful then the relationship is positive and leads to mutually productive outcomes. In other words quality conversations underpin exceptional leadership and robust results. Leading others successfully is a relational discipline – a mindset and a set of conversational practices based on acknowledging the interdependence between leaders and followers within the organisational systems and culture.

  • Leadership Learning as Real Time Development

The most important learning is informal, real time, on the job learning that is based on individual learning needs. In Making the Case for a Developmental Perspective (Cook-Greuter’s (2004) a distinction is made between vertical and a horizontal development. Horizontal development is “expansion at the same stage (developing new skills, adding information & knowledge transfer from one area to another). Vertical development is “transformation to a new more integrated perspective “a broader, more complex mindset”. i.e. cognitive, emotional and social development that can deal with ambiguity.

This challenges the current organisation leadership development obsession for leadership competency frameworks and the training that results from them. As leaders said “competency development has been done to death…competencies have become either overwhelming in number or too generic… they don’t add value…they are just one aspect of developing leaders” (CCL Report 2011). While growing skills is important, leadership cannot be reduced to a set of skills. The challenge today is not skill building but the development of agile and open minds.

There is another challenge in competency development and that is HOW people are being given knowledge and skills. Many training companies pay lip service to experiential learning methods, but in the classroom content and input are still assigned most of the airspace. Even with contemporary neuroscience research which is clear on the optimal conditions for learning, economic advantages of chalk and talk methods (and advantages for inflated expert egos) mean they prevail in leadership learning.

Learning itself must be placed under constant scrutiny. To maximise success in competency development:

  • Focus on the real time challenges that leaders identify they require for their effectiveness
  • Build on existing experience and knowledge
  • Transmit content/input in a generative learning environment
  • Focus content/input around structured reflective conversations to make the learning relevant.
  • Tailor learning to individual situations and needs (real plays rather than role plays).


“Vertical” learning is another matter. Increasingly leadership is about cognitive flexibility. At senior levels of organisations decisions involving controversy are commonplace; competing for pots of money, speaking truth to power, shifting organisational mindsets. Dealing with them requires bigger mindsets and breakthroughs in thinking. Cognitive flexibility is based on open assumptions about the nature of knowledge and reality. With cognitive flexibility, and a shared goal, complex decision making is possible (King and Kitchener 2001). While it may emerge out of competency development (and the above conditions maximise the likelihood of cognitive shifts), where cognitive shifts mostly happen is in real time, on-the-job learning.

This indicates leadership learning on the job, shadow coaching, team coaching in real-time meetings, internal co-coaching partnerships.

  • Re-authoring leadership as a democratic activity

Over the last 50 years, leadership has been focused on the individual. Heroic performance, charisma and expertise and the ability to direct others are still rewarded by organisations in status, authority and position. With seniority, recruitment practices mean leaders stay true to type.

In the last ten years there has been a growing recognition that individuals who fit this style are not equipped to solve the complex multi-faceted situations that include culture, values, relationships and multiple disciplines, let alone understand them. Added to this is the advance in technology over the last 15 years which have has given more people new access to knowledge, points of view and different disciplinary expertise. This has led to the democratisation of knowledge. Leadership today must acknowledge this. It creates many more “truths” than ever before. Collaboration is occurring across geographic, economic, political and social boundaries and often beyond the awareness of the leader. Leadership today is about joining the conversation, opening the space to be challenged, allowing other to speak truth to power, inviting and being open to others’ perspectives.

This means the end of an era dominated by individual “expert” leaders and the beginning of an era that embraces networks of leadership according to Nick Petrie of CCL. However embracing this view requires skills in conversational practices such as negotiation and influencing, opening minds, innovation and robust conversations.

  •  Leadership as a mindfulness practice.

Leading others involves responsibility and privilege. Mindfulness is increasingly connected with effective leaders and can be defined according to Harvard Business School Professor, William George “as a state of being fully present, aware of oneself and other people, and sensitive to one’s reactions to stressful situations”. In its simplest form it is being aware of one’s own behaviours and actions; aware of putting your keys down so you can find them again, aware of turning off the heater so you can reassure yourself later if self-doubt arises.

Mindfulness is the foundation of effective and authentic relationships, a concept made popular by Daniel Goleman in his work on Emotional Intelligence and will lead to high engagement and motivation. On the other hand leaders with little self-awareness are more likely to be seduced by external validation in monetary rewards, power and notoriety. They are also unable to recognise their own weaknesses or to acknowledge when they have made mistakes. Some of the recent difficulties of Hewlett-Packard, British Petroleum, failed Wall Street firms, and dozens of leaders who failed in the post-Enron era are examples of this. In 2009 and 2010, the Institute of Mindful Leadership surveyed 80 Mindful Leaders from twelve organizations, 70% of leaders reported the training made a positive difference in their ability to think strategically, 93% said the training had a positive impact on their ability to create space for innovation, 89% said the program enhanced their ability to listen to themselves and others. Resilience is based on mindfulness, self-awareness and self-compassion. By understanding our own lives we become more compassionate with ourselves and with others. This is the basis of building robust relationships. If we accept our vulnerabilities and challenges we can gather people around us that support and assist us. Furthermore we can conduct the challenging conversations that are part of leadership and build robust.


Implications of the New Leadership Development

This white paper proposes that without a network of relationships, leadership cannot emerge. Our attention might be diverted to the wonder of heroism or the power of charisma, but where leadership really emerges is not in the spotlight but in the shadows – emerging out of the nexus of conversations that materialise in organisations when people weave their work and life together in invisible and unspoken ways. What happens is that thousands of acts of relationality come together and are expressed as ongoing guidance, challenge, support, sharing of experience and inspiration of one another. These build robust organisational networks to face the challenges of today’s complexity and produce new possibilities and opportunities for learning and leadership to “emerge out of nowhere” (e.g. Barrack Obama).

It is to this networked nature of the new leadership that leadership development must turn. The basis of networked leadership is relationship; and the foundation of relationships is conversation.



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