1. The problem with existing leadership development

Kamenev and Zinoviev were two Bolshevik leaders under Lenin. The impression Lenin made on them was so great that they both developed his handwriting. Marty Sklar was one of Walt Disney‘s right-hand men and became Chief Imagineer for the Disney Corporation. Walt always used a red pen to make notes. Long after Walt‘s death, handwritten red notes were still being passed around the Imagineer department, because Sklar would only use a red pen. At Disney, when casting around for a creative solution, the question everyone uses, even now, is - What would Walt do?

The imprint leaders leave on people is mysterious and the legacy of effective leaders runs deep. But one thing it is not is standardized. HR departments in large organizations, currently working away diligently on standardized leadership behaviours, and development systems, please take note.

The leadership consultant Rene Carayol put it this way:

“We have been told for years now that there is a standard, homogenized great leader type or template we have to aspire to. Organizations deliver one training programme, people are expected to become clone leaders. That doesn‘t work. The marketplace tells us that difference works. Challenging the status quo and standing out from the pack is what makes a great leader.” Rene Carayol carayol.com

If you systematize anything you end up with too much similarity. And that applies to the way large organizations develop leaders. There is already too much sameness out there. Take this example from the maverick business leader Ricardo Semler, who sometimes teaches at Harvard Business School, and told me this when I asked him about his approach to leadership:

“I ran an exercise with forty-three Fortune 500 CEOs. I got them to write down their company values on a piece of card. Then, when they were at coffee, I swapped all the cards around without telling them. When they came back it took them a while to figure out that they had somebody else‘s values in front of them. They were all saying the same thing.

According to all the recent research by The Gallup Organization, Marcus Buckingham and others, most corporate leaders are still failing to engage and inspire their people, despite the billions of dollars poured into management and leadership development every year.

“I was shocked to find that I no longer believe in business education.” Charles Handy, 2006*

*NB I had breakfast with Charles Handy in 2008 and asked him if he actually said this. He said he didn’t, but that it’s the kind of thing he might have said.

There's an old saying that the problem with training is that as soon as someone shows you how to do something, they have taken away the possibility of you inventing a better way of doing it.

It‘s a trap that leadership development falls squarely into.

The aim of leadership development is to develop skills, certainly. But, that is only part of it. Warren Bennis, described by the Financial Times as “The Dean of Leadership”, defines growing into leadership as a process of finding your own voice and fully expressing yourself. He says leadership courses generally fail:

“I would argue that more leaders have been made by accident, circumstance, sheer grit, or will than have been made by all the leadership courses put together.” Warren Bennis

Bennis and other leadership experts stress that the ingredients of leadership cannot be taught through courses. But, they can be learned.

“Learning is meant to be...active, passionate and personal” Warren Bennis

“When a company requires people to go through a one-size-fits-all leadership development programme, participants may simply go through the motions...” Daniel Goleman, Primal Leadership


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