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Complexity and Ideal Worlds: Why Leadership Development Fails

May 8, 2018

Complexity and Ideal Worlds: Why Leadership Development Fails

It’s no secret that satisfaction with the return on corporate leadership development investment is not high.  Just check with your favorite HR analyst or consulting company.  The numbers all tell the same story:

In spite of decades of investment, leadership pipelines are still weak.  Employee engagement is still low.  Strategy execution is still a monumental struggle. In a recent IBM study of global CEOs, people skills came in as the third biggest concern only behind market shifts and new technologies.  Harvard’s Mike Beer termed the over $160B spend on corporate learning “the great training robbery”.  That doesn’t sound good.

Is mediocre leadership just inevitable, or is there something wrong with all of our efforts?

If you go to Deloitte or Harvard or McKinsey, you can get advice on how to design better leadership development programs.  Some of it is even pretty good advice.  If you go to the learning technology industry, they’ll tell you about the latest online delivery tools and ways to make content more accessible and trackable.  Some of those tools are pretty cool too.

Now, I’m a fan of good program design and I like having tools that work, but I’ve been in the trenches with my colleagues in leadership development for a long time. Your people already have access to a lot of content. And there are a lot of well-managed programs out there.  Your company has probably been tinkering with content and delivery for a couple decades now.  There’s no silver bullet there, but we keep chasing the next shiny object.

Today, I want to draw your attention to two things you might not have been paying attention to:

1. Complexity

Leadership is hard and there’s a lot to it.  The classic approach of the leadership development industry is to fight that complexity with more complexity.  The attempt is to define and describe every requirement of leadership and then help people with each of the parts.

However, competency models with dozens of elements only compound the problem.  We end up with development that is an inch deep and a mile-wide.  Or people are left with the grocery store aisle effect and they can’t figure out what to choose.  After a while they pick a box of presentation skills or time management off the shelf and call it a day.

Personality-type models are also very common, and they are no better.  Setting aside the bogus science and self-reporting, these approaches ask leaders to intentionally shift their behavior on the fly based on hundreds of potential trait interactions.  And what if there’s more than one person in the room?  Should I tailor my approach to each of them, or is there an N-dimensional graph that will tell me what to do based on every possible combination? Even if the tool existed, nobody can actually do that.  Our minds just don’t work that way.

2. Ideal Worlds

If you think about it, most leadership development content is designed for an ideal world that we don’t actually live in.

  • In this ideal world, strategies are well aligned from the top and it’s the leader’s job to simply execute them.
  • There’s no tension around goals and incentives across units. Cross-functional collaboration is simply a matter of making connections and forming teams.
  • In this ideal world, your boss is right, always has your best interests front of mind, and your job is simply to support their agenda.
  • Everyone is always rational and consistent in their behavior.

We all know the real world is a lot messier than that, but these subtle assumptions creep in.  Tactics and techniques designed for an ideal world become very brittle when they encounter the inconsistencies, dysfunctions and struggles of real life.  People feel trapped – waiting for the organization or senior leaders to become perfect before they can step up and lead.

What Can We Do About It?

I say it’s time to stop expecting leaders to have some kind of superhuman capacity for managing complexity.  Your leaders need simple ideas that work in lots of situations.  Let’s build leadership development that focuses on that.  After people get the basics right, they can worry about fine tuning.

I don’t want leaders to feel like they have to wait for the perfect organization and perfect coworkers either. Guess, what?  They don’t exist.  I say it’s time to acknowledge that we’re all human and things aren’t perfect, but we have to get in there and do our best anyway.  Let’s build leadership development that helps people face the real challenges they face and start to make some headway.

I believe that helping leaders with fundamental skills, will not only make their everyday lives easier, but it will actually enable progress on the big complex stuff.  After all, it’s hard to lead innovation and strategy, if you can’t even talk to people about the real issues.

What do you think?

– Sean Kennedy, Senior Vice President Learning Strategy