CPD articles

CPD: Leadership development

1 June 2014

The ingredients that make up a successful manager are varied and complex. But simply following a set of 'best practice' rules is not going to make for better leaders, says Nick Shannon.

How effective are leadership development programmes? Few companies today are without a leadership “competency” model and an associated suite of activities that are aimed at developing leadership. And leadership characteristics are one of the factors that firms are frequently expected to describe to satisfy tender requirements when bidding for major projects.

But despite all the effort that HR functions put into leadership development programmes, there are few indications that leadership is improving. Here’s one test: ask a cross section of your organisation’s stakeholders – clients, employees, supply chain, and shareholders – how much their confidence in the leadership of your firm has increased in the last few years and see their reaction. For all the talk of the importance of leadership and effort going into leadership development few people seem to notice any difference. So what is going wrong?

In my consultancy work with organisations, I have developed a strong sense of déjà vu when I see the way leadership development is being thought about. Simply put, there is little leadership going into the development of leadership development programmes. Companies appear to be following a set of very standard practices that have been the staple diet of HR departments for the last 40 years. There can be little competitive advantage in following what passes for “best practice” and doing exactly what all other firms are doing. And yet this is what most organisations seem to be content to do — to follow each other.

Typically, they develop competency models, design 360 feedback assessment processes, establish talent pools, run development centres, and institute mentoring schemes. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong in such activities, they provide no means for a business to differentiate itself from its competitors.

Below are five flawed assumptions that currently underpin much of what passes as “best practice” in leadership.

1. It is helpful to define leadership in terms of a competency model

Leadership competency models are these days “de rigueur” for any organisation that feels the need to demonstrate it is developing capable leaders. But competency models are either catch-all lists of all the good characteristics that are thought to make for an ideal leader, or simply a bundle of categories, such as “Driving high performance”, that are commonly found in all models.

What is missing from all of these competency models is an appreciation that there are no leaders without followers, and therefore leadership is about the relationship between the leader and the led. Only when the leader understands what the followers want and need, can they know what will cause them to follow. As a consequence, competency models fail to include the essential element of leadership by making the assumption that followers will necessarily follow if the leader does a standard set of the “right” things.

2. Leadership skills can be learned by everyone, much the same as technical knowledge

There has been a long and vigorous debate about whether leaders are born or made. The answer is, of course, both – depending on what leadership is required. But, just as not everyone will ever play tennis like Andy Murray or strategise like a chess grandmaster such as Gary Kasparov, not everyone is capable of developing the required level of leadership skills. Learning any skill takes time and effort, and so people have to have the opportunity to practise and the motivation to persevere. Learning how to lead is never going to be a question of reading a book or attending a class. Hence expecting people to improve their leadership skills in response to 360 feedback on a theoretical competency model is the ultimate in wishful thinking.

3. Leading a business is much the same as leading a project

The typical career route in construction companies is for people who demonstrate successful leadership of projects to be promoted (eventually) to positions where they are leading a business. But here they are frequently undone by a lack of ability to think strategically. Construction companies are thus forever being caught by the cyclical nature of their market place.

The reason for this weakness in strategic thinking can be seen easily if we conceptualise leadership in terms of two essential activities: deciding where to go; and motivating people to go there. The former relates to intellectual capacity, while the latter has to do with how a person manages social relationships.

Has our management thinking moved on from the classic texts of the past 40 years?

On a project, deciding “where to go” is straightforward. The objective is to build a piece of infrastructure to a specification by a certain time and to a specific budget. There is therefore a logical “right” answer in selecting the route to achieve this.

In a business, however, the objective is far less clear and the route to achieve it much more ambiguous. The difference is between closed systems thinking on a project, and open systems thinking for a business. Few project managers therefore get practice at the kind of thinking that makes for strong strategic thinking in a business. Construction companies that fail to recognise this difference and promote their best project managers to run businesses are setting their leaders up to fail.

4. Learning gained from off-the-job activities can be transferred successfully to on-the-job activities

Organisations are frequently attracted to leadership programmes that take managers away from their day jobs and require them to partake in a broad variety of activities, none of which accurately duplicate the kind of leadership that they are expected to demonstrate back in the real world. No doubt many of these exercises (which often include outward bound style physical activities) teach something. But their relationship with the kind of leadership that is required within an organisation is tenuous.

The problem is that when managers return to the workplace the learning they have gained on such courses is often put aside and ignored. They revert to type when faced with the everyday challenges of their industry. More important, managers frequently have little or no opportunity to put into practice what they have learned away from their workplace. And without practice, a skill cannot be developed. Imagine going to a tennis academy for a long weekend of coaching and then not having the opportunity to play tennis again for several months or even years. If “off the job” learning is to be transferred successfully to the workplace, roles at work must be structured in such a way as to give people time to practise what they have learned.

5. Leaders will be able to control negative behaviours once they are made aware of them

Human beings are complex and managers often owe their success to extraordinary drive, determination and desire for power. But such characteristics are also the source of behaviours that are seen as negative by colleagues – overconfidence, need for control, and a constant desire to be in the spotlight are traits that can derail a high-flying executive’s career.

360 feedback and psychometric assessments are popular tools for identifying and highlighting managers’ negative traits. So much so, in fact, that many managers now are often quick to admit that they once suffered such faults but have worked on themselves to overcome them. Regrettably, beneficial as such self-awareness may be, mastering one’s emotional make-up is a lifetime’s work and even then, not easily achieved.

Under pressure, the negative traits in a manager’s makeup reappear in their behaviour, and unfortunately the more senior the executive, the fewer reasons they have to restrain themselves. Very often such managers reach a stage in life where it is vital for them to “be themselves”. Seeking authenticity, they just do what comes naturally to them and expect their colleagues and subordinates to accept them as they are.

The good news is that a more sophisticated view of leadership is emerging from studies in adult development psychology. Gradually, researchers are getting a better understanding of the stages of development that make up the journey of an adult life. Such studies suggest that development occurs at different rates in different people, and that the intellectual development of thinking skills is very often quite separate to the development of a person’s emotional makeup that guides their social behaviour.

This last point has huge implications for development programmes for leaders since it helps us see that leadership programmes aimed at improving emotional intelligence will not help people whose emotional development is some way behind their intellectual development. Equally, leadership programmes that focus on developing strategic thinking skills will be of limited effectiveness for people whose emotional development is well advanced but whose cognitive development is lagging. Above are a couple of short cases studies to illustrate the point.

In summary, models of adult development help us consider the “whole person” and see leadership development in terms of the careful matching of a manager’s stage of development to the demands and complexity of their role. What is required is to understand precisely where a manager sits in terms of their development, intellectually on the one hand and emotionally on the other. Then it is case of structuring their work role so that it gives them the opportunity to develop in areas where they are deficient.

A more thoughtful approach to leadership development stands a better chance of giving an organisation competitive advantage than simply following what goes for “best practice” and does not appear to be working.

The social underachiever and the muddled strategist

Case study 1: Mary

Mary is a highly intelligent business development manager. Her boss, the marketing director, values her energy and creativity and sees her as a potential successor. He fast-tracks Mary onto the high potential talent pool where she performs impressively on a two-day development course.

When the company goes through a restructure, Mary is promoted into a new role where she has full responsibility for business development, reporting to the business unit managing director. But problems soon arise. Mary and her new team do not appear to get along. Her team complain that she floods them with ideas and expects them to do things that they do not understand how to do.

From Mary’s perspective, her new team are difficult and obstructive, and not up to the job. She demands that her MD removes two members of her team completely and allows her to hire three people with whom she has worked in the past in their place.

Case study 2: Michael

Michael is a long-standing and highly experienced engineer and project manager, who has successfully delivered some of his firm’s most prestigious projects. After the company makes a minor acquisition, Michael is offered the chance to run the acquired business.

He takes the role but soon realises he is really out of his depth. He gets on well with the people in his team and believes he can forge them into a more capable team, but he struggles with setting a clear vision for the business. Unfamiliar with the industry sector, he feels overwhelmed by all the uncertainties about future opportunities, competitors’ actions, and the economic climate. In an attempt to establish a plan he takes his team for a series of strategy away days but the result is a seemingly never-ending list of possibilities with no decision on what route to take.

Reports start filtering back to Michael’s boss that the team really like him but are desperate for him tell them what his priorities and plans are so that they know where to focus their efforts.


From the perspective of a competency approach to talent management, both Mary and Michael would be treated in the same way, albeit they would be seen to be lacking in different competencies – Mary would be seen to be lacking in team leadership and influencing skills, Michael would be seen to be lacking in strategic thinking skills.

The likely recommended remedy would be coaching or training in the relevant competencies. But from the perspective of adult development, the cases are completely different. Michael is well developed socially and emotionally, but is under-developed cognitively. What he requires are tools with which to think strategically and the opportunity to practise such skills over time.

Mary is well developed cognitively, but under-developed socially and emotionally. At this stage she is unable to take responsibility for the performance of her team. Mary cannot be helped by learning new techniques to lead her team, instead she needs time to develop her confidence, to get a stronger sense of who she is, and to build greater independence.

Mary’s development cannot be forced along, it must be allowed to happen naturally. For the present, she is in over her head and must be supported by being relieved of some of the burden of managing her team.

Click here to take the online CPD test paper for June 2014

Nick Shannon is a chartered psychologist who works with organisations to help them select and develop high-performance senior managers and management teams. He provides coaching, mentoring, facilitation and talent management services as a consultant to some of the world’s leading businesses in the financial and constructions sectors. He has also been providing assessment services to the Senior Civil Service for the last 10 years.


Good read but can not get in to the multiple choice questions.

Lez Ellingham iciob, 7 June 2014

This is a great article. Nick is 100% right about what happens when a great 'closed loop system' project manager suddenly has to start running a business which is an 'open loop system'. In my experience it is a critical time, when he or she will stand or fall dependent upon the help/ support they get in working through the issues.

Staffan Engstrom, 15 July 2014

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