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Jon Cowell

Edgecumbe Consulting Group

Director And Corporate Practice Lead

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Breaking through the leadership development fog


Although current economic news is finally sounding a more positive note, the challenges of the past five years have provided a stern test of leadership for many businesses which continues today; this week the CIPD suggested that wage rises would remain below the rate of inflation unless and until productivity improves. A 2012 review by the Department for Business Innovation & Skills identified weak leadership and management skills as a primary cause of the UK’s productivity deficit relative to its main competitors. In our 2013 research, 69% of managers believed that improving the quality of leadership would make a difference to their business’s prospects, but only 17% were confident that their business’s current activities to improve leadership will deliver. So we know that we need to improve leadership, but we don’t think we’re doing it very well at the moment. We think that this failure can largely be explained by the “fog” that seems to hang around our thinking on leadership.

The fog that we propose takes several forms, here are two of them:

1. The complexity of how we describe leadership 

Most leadership frameworks are competency based: they consist of long lists of behaviours thought to be associated with higher performance, often in various tiers or bands. What these frameworks invariably lack is any coherent structure and, importantly, memorability. We regularly see people refer to a small business card kept in their pocket to remind themselves of value statements or frameworks espoused by their companies! What’s the point of a leadership framework if you can’t remember it? It’s clear that these frameworks don’t help leaders as they tackle business issues on the ground. 

To break through this fog we’ve drawn together the evolution of leadership thinking, from McGregor’s Theory X and Y via Transformational Leadership and Inspirational Leadership to create the Primary Colours® Model of Leadership. We believe we can arrange the tasks of leadership into three primary areas of focus:

  1. to describe a compelling purpose and vision: a focus on the future
  2. to engage others to pursue it: a focus on people and relationships
  3. to deliver the results which advance progress towards the desired future: a focus on the task

This simple (rather than simplistic!) idea forms the basis of The Primary Colours® Model of Leadership developed by Dr David Pendleton. The ‘primary colours’ refer to the 3 overlapping domains of leadership: strategic, operational and interpersonal.  The tasks which sit wholly within each domain are complemented by linking tasks shown at the intersections in the model below.

Whilst none of the tasks described in the model are unique, we believe that the way it configures them provides new insights.  By allowing us to see which tasks are associated with the key tensions of leadership (long vs short term and task vs relationship), it enables a more insightful reflection on leader performance and clear indications of what needs to be done to improve it.  And because the model reflects research on the links between personality and performance, it also helps people to see where their natural strengths lie – as well as those tasks for which they are not temperamentally well suited  – and provides a framework for establishing the diversity associated with superior team performance. 

This leads us to the second “fog” in leadership development:

2. The  still-common individualistic view of heroic leadership

In our 2013 research, nearly two thirds of managers said that leaders in their organisation build teams of people with similar characteristics. Thus, it’s unsurprising that, as McKinsey also argue, many leadership development initiatives take a “one size fits all” approach.

However, the strengths-based approach to leadership has helped to bring into focus the notion that it’s difficult for any individual leader to sustain excellence in all aspects of leadership, and damaging to try to do so. Recent research in psychology has begun to demonstrate why this is: it’s apparent that the very same qualities which help an individual to excel at some of the core leadership tasks may make it more difficult to excel at the others.  Therefore, we need to develop leaders who know what it is that they bring to the table in terms of natural strengths, and where their gaps are likely to be. We also need leadership development to be conducted at the level of the team, rather than just that of the individual. Developing a leadership team of diverse characters allows individuals within the team to focus on doing those things they can do best, and work with others who bring those capabilities they lack. Once you have a diverse team, the members need to know one another’s individual qualities in order to field the right members for different tasks.

This thinking often brings sighs of relief from leaders we work with because they no longer need to try to be the perfect all-rounder. But that relief is short lived when they realise that building a diverse team means they need to work closely with people who are inherently different to them in the way they see the world, think and approach tasks. It requires different animals to work together and there’s good reason why David Attenborough has never presented a scene of a lion, elephant, gazelle and chimp collaborating on a project!

The collaborative approach to leadership that we propose requires leaders to develop the skills to work constructively with difference and the disagreement it can bring. Unfortunately, according to our research it’s in the interpersonal domain of leadership – tasks of building relationships, influencing people and working in teams – that UK leaders are seen to be most inept.

So there’s work to be done! We think HR has an important part to play in breaking the fog surrounding leadership development – working with senior management and other key influencers – to clarify the definition of leadership so that it’s memorable without clamping a reminder round leader’s necks, and challenging leadership and management teams to develop as one – despite the discomfort that can bring.

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Jon Cowell

Director And Corporate Practice Lead

Read more from Jon Cowell

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