Restoring confidence in leadership

Highly effective leadership is urgently needed, especially now. Recent surveys and studies from the Harris Poll, Harvard Kennedy School, Wall Street and other sources clearly show a growing lack of confidence in existing leadership across a wide range of institutions.

It’s not for lack of leadership programs, however. Estimates show the leadership development industry in the U.S. ranges from a $14 billion to $50 billion enterprise. Moreover, such programs are professionally crafted and often backed by solid research.

Yet confidence in leadership wanes despite organizations pumping significant resources into developing current and future leaders. How is this possible?

  • Few leadership programs evaluate their program’s effectiveness meaningfully.
  • Many programs remain disconnected from the specific performance challenges facing their organizations.
  • We view leadership development as an individual sport rather than one that is socially constructed and shaped by its organizational context.

Before jumping to the conclusion that we should start from scratch, it might be better to find ways to muscle-build what we have already. For instance, we routinely tailor courses and programs to match the leadership competencies a company wants to develop, while adapting the program to its culture and expectations.

Some leadership programs focus on who a leader is, rather than what they can do. Assessing potential is necessary, but insufficient. Leaders must possess the experiences needed to tackle scenarios they will face. If you have never performed a turnaround, it doesn’t matter if your profile displays promising characteristics. Providing future leaders exposure to a variety of explicit real-world challenges is one means of developing key capabilities and learning ability. Second, if you ask senior executives what they want from a leadership program, they’ll tell you they want performance to improve. If you ask HR, they’ll say leaders need desirable leadership qualities. Both expectations are valid. However, leadership programs often gear their training toward bridging gaps against a defined profile rather than demonstrating tangible outcomes.

You typically need both. We should gauge leaders on the decisions they make and the results they produce, as well as their capacity to learn from direct experience, including mistakes. This means programs cannot focus solely on assessment tools, success profiles and processes. Instead, the leadership process must find ways to connect its development activities with relevant performance challenges that strengthen the organization, are self-funding and don’t disappear whenever the economy declines.

Last, Western culture places a premium on individualism. Single leaders can make a difference — good or bad. Still, leadership development does not occur in a vacuum. Every organization has a distinct social reality. While some social contexts enhance learning, others suppress it. Yet all organizations tacitly or explicitly stress certain behaviors. Focusing too heavily on the individual can eclipse a telling picture of the whole that lends insight into preferences that are beneficial and those that are not.

To muscle-build leadership development practices and restore confidence in leadership, organizations should:

  • Augment leaders that have the “right stuff” with the right experiences.
  • Anchor the leadership process toward achieving results in addition to developing desirable characteristics.
  • Clarify the social context to determine if the prevailing patterns are supportive of development, constraining, or require change. ●

Harlow Cohen, Ph.D. is Faculty director, MPOD Program Professor, Organizational Behavior, at Case Western Reserve University

Harlow Cohen, Ph.D.

Faculty Director, MPOD Program Professor, Organizational Behavior


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