Leadership comes from within

Leadership comes from within

People learn about leadership but they are not given the opportunity to demonstrate leadership. Therefore, much leadership development work is a waste of time.

Why do management teams spend so much on leadership development instead of changing the culture? There are fatal flaws in the leadership development industry.

First, we train middle managers in leadership, then pull the rug out from under them by drowning them in policies, hierarchy, precedent, internal competition, and vacillation.

The problem is the same in private industry and in the public sector. People learn about leadership but they are not given the opportunity to demonstrate leadership. Therefore, much leadership development work is a waste of time.

The solution to this leadership development dilemma is not in training more middle managers in leadership. The chances are that they are fairly good at it anyway.

The solution lies in removing the barriers that inhibit all of our (generally quite able) middle managers from realising their leadership potential.

Sure, it helps to be reflective and to learn how to be visionary, and to have a personal leadership development plan and a coach and a mentor.

But it is all a waste of time unless there are organisational changes in culture.

The key to successful leadership development for executives might well lie in having fewer meetings, smaller strategic plans, fewer key performance indicators, rules and policies. If you have good leadership from the top, you do not need as many of these things. Therein lies one paradox. Leadership from the top helps to free up the leadership below.

Organisations have immediately saved thousands of dollars in leadership training. The solution lies within.

It is often already there and does not need to be imported with expensive training programs.

So why do management teams spend so much on leadership development instead of changing the culture and internal systemic dynamics of their organisation?

The answer might lie in the metaphor of the $900 financial stimulus package cash handouts. Leadership development is often a policy initiative that is easier than making the tough call.

Just like the archetypal bureaucrat, it is easier for business leaders to spend money on leadership training and then tick the box and believe that they have fixed the leadership problem by throwing money at it.

As with the financial stimulus package, it will have some benefit, but the underlying causes of the leadership problem still have to be addressed.

Gains made by leadership training and development will be for nothing unless organisations ease the reliance on rules, precedent, meetings, hierarchy, policies and internal competition. These things generate negative emotions and reduce innovation and intellectual stimulation. In other words, they negate leadership.

It is no comfort that research supports what I am saying and that we secretly already know about this dilemma. Deep down, we know that most of our leadership training budget is wasted.

Another potentially fatal flaw in leadership development is that most of it is really just succession planning for the top job.

Mention leadership to 20 people and you will have 20 different implicit theories about what is meant. For the most part, people are thinking about the leader and not about leadership. They are thinking about the person at the top.

If the organisation needs senior management succession, let's call it that. After all, leadership does not necessarily get people to the top job.

We know that management success is about power, ambition and coalition with like-minded people. Often, it is not a function of good leadership at all.

Here is another paradox. The people who really need to reflect on how they got there are senior executives.

The people who need to delve into their hidden assumptions and implicit theories are the senior executives.

The people who need to know how to transform the hearts and minds of followers are senior executives.

These are the people who need leadership training and development. If we really want executive education, it is the executives who should be developed.

But here is the thing - they are the ones who can free up the organisational culture to unleash the leadership that lies dormant within.They are the key to leadership development, but the budget is almost never spent on them. Paradox upon irony upon dilemma.Let's assume for a moment that the leader is the person in charge and that leadership is the desirable, social influence process that all people can engage in.

Let's assume then that leadership development is the fine-tuning of the organisation to remove internal transaction costs and allow leadership to flourish from within.

With those assumptions in mind, we are no longer just training people in leadership but we are developing it in our organisations.

With those assumptions in mind, we might be able to resurrect leadership development to its rightful place in our business education agenda.

• Ken Parry is director of the Centre for Leadership Studies at Bond University.

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