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Why Leadership Development Needs to Be Democratized

Why Leadership Development Needs to Be Democratized

by Vibhas Ratanjee and Jennifer Robison

Story Highlights

  • Reimagine how you find organizational leadership
  • Current leadership development investments are misspent
  • Effective leadership means mastering seven competencies

Leadership development is having an existential moment. It's not a secret that leadership development is broken. Companies are estimated to spend as much as $50 billion a year on leadership development while surveys of executives consistently show improving leadership development is a priority challenge.

At this point, it's fair to say that leadership development may need a complete reimagining, a restructuring, an all-out reformation. To be absolutely blunt, leadership development needs democratization.

This might sound subversive, perhaps almost reckless to most leaders. But doesn't growth require challenging outdated perspectives?

The deeply flawed perspective in question is that leadership development does and should serve the top two levels of an organization. Entry into these elite programs is and should be reserved for those who meet specific rites of passage -- typically how many years a person has spent in the company or how well they have projected and embodied the brand as a good leader of people.

The end result of this narrow perspective is that development investments focus not on future leaders but primarily on a handful of potential "successors." This manifests further in severe underinvestment in developing front-line and operational managers, who might be lacking the leadership development that is critical for your future.

Gallup finds that 58% of leaders strongly agree that they have opportunities at work to learn and grow, and 42% strongly agree that someone has talked to them about their progress in the last six months. Meanwhile, only 39% of managers strongly agree they have growth opportunities and 34% of managers strongly agree they've talked about their progress with someone at work recently.

In other words, if today's leadership development programs are a gatekeeper for an elite, high-potential group, $50 billion a year isn't fixing the leadership deficit and most future leadership talent is going undeveloped. Perhaps a little shake-up is in order.

But only if it is supported by scientifically validated data. Democratizing development should fix a broken system, not dispense with the system entirely. Leaders do need to be developed -- and there's a better way to do it.

Look for demonstrated leadership at all levels -- not just at the top.

First, we need to revise our definition of competencies to include those that all successful leaders possess -- and nothing more. Gallup studied 550 roles and 360 unique competencies to identify the most essential organizational competencies required for achieving excellence in any role. For leaders, seven stood out: building relationships, developing people, leading change, inspiring others, thinking critically, communicating clearly, and creating accountability.

These are the competencies associated with achieving success in leadership, so concentrating development efforts on anything outside of this list is a losing proposition. Furthermore, people at all levels of an organization can manifest those competencies, though differently at each level.

Take critical thinking for example. For executives, thinking critically may relate to building robust strategies to achieve business goals. Managers might display it by detecting anomalies and opportunities that provide leaders with strategic options. Individual contributors think critically about process improvements and product innovations.

Gallup studied 550 roles and 360 unique competencies to identify the most essential organizational competencies required for achieving excellence in any role.

Dismissing those demonstrations of leadership -- especially in managers, who constitute most organizations' successor pool -- is a mistake. Instead, look for it in managers' operational, process or people leadership styles.

If you narrowly define manager competencies as overseeing people and processes, you'll overlook sparks of leadership competencies. And that's exactly the kind of collective organizational leadership you want to see more of in your organization.

Expect more from managers.

Once you see it, develop it -- but not the traditional way, in dribs and drabs across a one-year program. That's woefully inadequate to the demands of managers, which can change every month or even every week.

Revolutionizing manager development requires individualized, experiential, ongoing, strengths-oriented growth and lifelong coaching. Basic managerial training will not suffice for these managers. They already know how to manage processes, people, and tasks.

They need to learn how to make tactical decisions, lead various aspects of organizational growth, advance the organization around new innovations, and learn new ways of doing things. They need critical skills such as how to communicate organizational vision, align their people around the vision in times of extreme uncertainty and unpredictability, and motivate and inspire people when things get challenging.

Managers aspiring to be leaders are only limited by their imagination. Don't limit their scope.

Reimagine learning for the next generation of leaders.

In four years, millennials will comprise 75% of the global workplace. At their disposal are a wealth of low- or no-cost leadership courses, including some from elite universities. It's taking the shine off once-coveted MBA programs and challenging traditional hierarchical leadership structures -- paying $100,000 for an MBA seems like unnecessarily paying dues for a title they can earn through personal initiative and on-the-job practice.

And by earning that title -- as a front-line manager, operational leader or individual contributor -- they may well expect businesses to more intentionally promote and develop them. It's hard to mount a counterargument to that.

If you narrowly define manager competencies as overseeing people and processes, you'll overlook sparks of leadership competencies.

So, to prepare for a new generation with new expectations, connect what millennials are learning -- on their own or in your L&D platform -- with the purpose of your organization. Actively promote innovation, not rote learning, with a heavy emphasis on inclusion and collaboration.

Consider, for instance, the CEO of a Gallup client. He was focused on driving organizationwide transformation, which required enlisting the organization's most important and influential managers. To that end, he created an extended leadership team, including managers and individual contributors from a broad cross section of the company.

This team meets in huddles every month to discuss challenges, incubate new ideas, and make strategic and operational adjustments to ensure that the company is headed in the right direction. This is the kind of social, immersive and inclusive leadership that future generations of leaders will value today.

Reconstruct leadership for the future.

In effect, that CEO deconstructed the traditional leader, manager and individual contributor roles and reconstructed them into something more effective, agile, influential and future-forward. He democratized leadership, in other words.

We are not suggesting that democratization means extreme decentralization of decision-making nor strategy formulation. Rather, democratization means inclusive leadership that relies on the collective wisdom of the organization to make mission-critical decisions or formulate strategies that are key to growth along with the active participation and development of managers in ways that advance the organization.

Put that way, reimagining, restructuring, and reforming leadership doesn't sound quite so inflammatory. And it really isn't. Democratizing leadership is simply mining talent and using the workforce's collective abilities better. What is inflammatory is the existential crisis of leadership development. It's time to build something better before those flames get any higher.

Learn how our leadership development framework could help you find and grow your next generation of leaders.


Vibhas Ratanjee is Senior Practice Expert -- Organizational and Leadership Development at Gallup.

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