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Jamie Lawrence


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Leadership development in the 21st century


This article was written by Therese S. Kinal, CEO and Co-Founder of management education and consulting business Unleash. She blogs online at

At best, leadership development is a fun day out, at worst it is a gut wrenching, annoying exercise that leaves you cringing as someone teaches you to suck eggs. In neither case does it make you into a leader. Harsh? Perhaps, but that’s how most managers and executives I work with see it…. and in the majority of cases, I agree. In this article I will share some of the reasons we need to rethink leadership development and an approach that actually works.

In today’s environment, employees have to deal with complexity and ambiguity at a much higher rate than before. Functions and clear roles and responsibilities have been replaced with multiple bosses, cross-functional teams, working with partners all over the world and a general sense of never quite standing still. In this brave new world, the only constant is change. And it is managers’ ability to innovate, collaborate and adapt to a constantly changing environment that are the leadership skills we most need to develop.

Despite the billions invested in leadership development every year, the vast majority of programmes fail to deliver their intended results. In the US alone, US$ 156 billion is invested in learning and development every year, or US$ 1,182 per employee. And even though classroom training (live and virtual) is perceived to be the least effective, over 50 percent of organisations report using it. In this tough economic climate and rapidly changing business environment, it’s not enough to advocate leadership development on the back of competency models. HR professionals these days need to show how they deliver measurable business results and develop the leaders of tomorrow.

We recently did an interesting exercise in our own team. In preparation for a workshop, we reflected on our most defining experiences as individuals, i.e. the experiences that have shaped our lives and made us into who we really are. As you might imagine, the answers were centred on overcoming adversity, dealing with new and tough challenges and working together with a great team. Now, let’s compare for a moment this to how most of us approach leadership development. Last year I spent some time speaking with a senior HR director in a large, global FMCG company that illustrates the problem well. Like most large organisations, one of their biggest challenges was creating and innovative and entrepreneurial culture. They had identified several competencies that were needed and then hired trainers to teach their managers about innovation, collaboration and working with people across functions, geographies and cultures. Unsurprisingly, not much had changed.

While training can be worthwhile, it doesn’t change how people think and act, nor does it develop leaders. Ralph Kruegar, Edmonton Oilers said: “Winners are born in difficult times”. I couldn’t agree more and research supports this. Behavioural change occurs by combining cognitive, behavioural and emotive components. To develop, an individual must go through an explorative journey, where they learn through real-life action, develop ownership and internalise new knowledge and behaviours.

So, how does one do this in practice? Well, we have found that the most effective way to develop leaders is not through any programme at all, but rather by infusing leadership development into real, live action. Here’s our approach:

  • Real, Pressing & Complex Problem: Change happens when a team goes through a transformational process that requires personal engagement, group interdependency, collaboration and intense learning. This can only be achieved in the context of solving a real, pressing and complex business problem in real time.
  • Diverse Team with the Right Mix of Skills and Influence: Diversity is no longer about simply sitting on cross-functional teams. Change requires diversity of thought. A good starting point is selecting a subset of all the potential sub-groups that are involved in the creation and use of the solution.
  • Learning through Action: For learning to take place, an individual must go through an explorative journey, where they learn through real life action, making personal adjustments to the learned material, developing ownership and internalising new knowledge and behaviours.
  • Going Through a Battle: As the team tackles the complex and pressing problem through exploration and action, they will go through conflict and turbulence. This is a crucial part of the change process and needs to be managed by an experienced coach.
  • 1+1=3. Co-creation: In traditional teamwork one’s ability to influence, communicate and sell one’s ideas are common success factors. In co-creation however, team members are required to have an open mind, receive other’s thoughts and input and build on and challenge their ideas. This poses a tough challenge on the team as they have to break down old ways of working and create a culture of cohesion and collaboration.
  • The Coach: Just like in professional sports, leadership development requires a superb coach. The coach should be hand picked and trained to empower teams to work through issues and create solutions. They should work side-by-side with the team, managing the change journey, challenging thinking, providing external perspective and ensuring the team creates breakthrough solutions and innovations that they genuinely believe in.

Many organisations claim to be using some of the theories above, such as Action Learning, but are actually not. To keep it simple, they have adapted the experiential learning process to be a test on an actual problem solving exercise, rather than giving the participants mandate to actually solve a problem or innovate in real time. This desire to systematise and standardise what is an organic and exploratory process – how we develop into leaders – is at the crux of why leadership development so often does not work.

My advice to you: Think about how you yourself have developed, dare to think outside the box and question how it’s always been done. And most importantly, and never stop questioning what you’re doing – there’s always room for improvement.


American Center for Training & Development 2012 State of the Industry Report, 2012, [online] Available at: <>.

CIPD, (2012 and 2008). Learning and Talent Development Report, 2012, and Who Learns at Work, 2008. [online]
Available at: <>.

US Training Industry Report, 2011, [online] Available at: <>.

Foy, 1972, Fitts & Posner, 1967, Kolb, 1984, Brown, 2009

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence