New Leadership for New Times – Why we need to think differently about leadership development

Looking Ahead 2We’ve come to a point where we need to think differently about leadership development – in a way that doesn’t reject what we know and do already, but builds on it. Central to this re-think, we need to understand what’s so dramatically different about today’s turbulent business environment, and the new forms of leadership it requires. This post is about leadership agility and “vertical development.” It’s about how these two ways of thinking about leadership intersect, and how, together, they can reframe what leadership development is all about.

We all know that we need to do more to prepare our leaders for this new era of accelerating change and increasing interdependence, for this so-called VUCA world of volatility, uncertainty, change and ambiguity. All the current studies of leadership development needs around the world, conducted by survey specialists like i4cp and large firms like Deloitte, Center for Creative Leadership, DDI, McKinsey and Right Management, underscore this need. Their findings show that leadership development has come to the very forefront of talent development priorities. Many companies – and leadership development professionals – feel their LD programming isn’t producing the results that are really needed.

Competency models – Are they giving us all we need?

What’s going on here? Leadership development has become a sophisticated profession. We know and work with the ideas that fueled the shift from “management” to “leadership” starting in the 1980s. We know the importance of identifying leadership competencies relevant to the unique demands our particular company faces. We realize that the competencies needed for different levels of management are different, so we’ve identified these as well. By ensuring that our LD programming lines up with these competencies, we’ve felt confident that we can deliver what our company needs.

Why, then, the persistent gap between leadership development needs and results – the nagging feeling that we can do more? Partly it’s that we need to go further in linking learning and application. The move toward blended learning and more experiential forms of learning, like action learning programs and the use of coaching in LD programs, has definitely moved us in the right direction. We need to do more along these lines, but there is an underlying issue that goes more to the core of what leadership development is all about.

This underlying issue has to do with the fact that, in the past decade or so, the world our leaders face has changed dramatically. Not only that, change is literally accelerating. As a result, the leadership mind-sets and skill-sets that were effective not so long ago are coming up against their limits. These limits will rapidly become more and more apparent.

For five years, I conducted an intensive research project with my colleague Stephen Josephs that asked the question: Does today’s complex, rapidly changing environment demand a new kind of leadership? If so, what does it look like?

We discovered that leaders still need the skills that worked in the recent past. But they also need to develop a new repertoire, a whole new level of leadership, if you will, to deal with the VUCA conditions that are now so much the norm. Many of us realize this, but we don’t have a clear roadmap or systematic picture of what the new leadership requires. Our research focused in especially on the leaders that are most effective amid these conditions. What sets them apart? What’s different about the way they think and act?

The need for leadership agility

The findings are captured in the book Leadership Agility. Here I’ll summarize some of the key insights, beginning with the one that may be the most important. The overall capability that the more effective leaders possessed (they were only ~10% of the total) is what I have come to call “leadership agility.” (This is not “learning agility,” which can be seen as a small sub-set of leadership agility, as I’m defining it here).

In a nutshell, managers who operate at the higher levels of leadership agility needed for sustained effectiveness in a VUCA world have the ability to think and set their intentions differently. This is what underlies their qualitatively different action repertoire. This is not just about being a creative, out-of-the-box thinker, although what I call creative agility is an important part of leadership agility. The other three types of agility that these leading-edge managers exhibited were context-setting agility, stakeholder agility, and self-leadership agility.

Stages of vertical development

The behaviors exhibited by highly agile leaders are made possible by a distinct set of cognitive and emotional capacities that can be learned and developed. Moreover, our research confirmed and elaborated on earlier studies, which showed that these capacities develop in stages. Each new stage involves a significant shift in perspective, allowing a leader to operate at an entirely new level of agility. These agility levels can be assessed, and —when the right kind of training, coaching and facilitation are provided—leaders, teams and leadership cultures can develop new levels of agility. (For an overview of the agility levels most relevant to today’s organizations, see my white paper, essentially an executive summary of the book).

The developmental stages I’ve just referenced come from a field of research called stage-development psychology, which began in the 1920s with Jean Piaget’s studies of childhood development. In the last several decades the field has exploded with new research on stages of adult development, thanks to pioneers like Bill Torbert and Susann Cook-Greuter, who built upon Jane Loevinger’s extensive work on “ego development,” and Robert Kegan. These stages are not age-related phases of adult development (as in the popular 1970s book Passages, which some of us remember). They are progressive, qualitatively different levels of cognitive and emotional growth.

This body of research has been getting increasing attention from coaches and leadership development professionals, sometimes under the rubric of “vertical development.” The idea behind this terminology is that the vast majority of leadership development has focused on “horizontal” development. What does this mean?

Horizontal (or lateral) development means that you gain new knowledge, skills and competencies in a manner that does not change your developmental stage. Horizontal development allows us to use our current cognitive and emotional capacities to gain new knowledge and expand our competencies to new areas, but it does not change our developmental stage. Therefore, everything we learn is still filtered and then applied using the mental models characteristic of our current stage. For example, if a manager is anchored at what I and others have called the “Expert” stage of development, the stage before true strategic thinking emerges, that manager can attend a great workshop on strategic thinking, but not really internalize and apply the learning. This is one of the primary reasons that the things we want leaders to learn too often just don’t “stick.”

The Leadership Agility research shows that VUCA conditions not only require new leadership skills, but also “vertical development” – learning how to think, embody and act from the next stage of cognitive and emotional growth. A big part of the re-think we need in LD programming is to incorporate vertical development approaches into our leadership workshops, coaching methods, and action learning programs.

But to do so, we need a clear, practical, research-based roadmap to guide us. The Leadership Agilitymodel synthesizes and builds upon the earlier frameworks of vertical development mentioned above. It also adds additional insights from 5 years of new in-depth studies of leaders “in their natural habitat.” The new knowledge that resulted from this research gives us a more complete understanding adult developmental stages. Most importantly, we gained a new understanding how to facilitate development from one stage to another.

The Leadership Agility model, assessment tool, workshops, and coaching methods we’ve been using with clients approach leadership development from the inside-out (vertical development) and from the outside-in (horizontal development of new competencies), always with an emphasis on making everything highly accessible, practical, and applied for busy, results-oriented managers.

Image41Bill Joiner is co-author of the award-winning book, Leadership Agility.  He is President and a Principal Consultant at ChangeWise, a firm with international reach that specializes in leadership consulting, coaching and training; team development; and organizational change consulting.

Follow Bill Joiner on Twitter – @leaderagility


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of The HR Gazette or its team members.

Author: Bill Joiner

Bill Joiner is co-author of the award-winning book, Leadership Agility. He is CEO, resident thought-leader, and a Principal Consultant at ChangeWise, a firm with international reach that specializes in leadership consulting, coaching and training; team development; and organizational change consulting. Follow Bill Joiner on Twitter – @leaderagility

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