Leadership development – not a waste of time, energy and money when done right

Tuesday, 11 June 2024 00:08 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

It is essential that leadership development caters to an organisational need and is carefully planned and monitored

Effective leaders are those who enable positive people performance through role modelling, inspiring a shared vision, facilitating an environment of open and frank discussion, licensing the challenge of the status quo, enabling empowerment and decision making, and celebrating success. You do not necessarily have to be a good manager to be a good leader or vice versa. Leadership is hierarchy agnostic. In a corporate setting, leadership need not be confined to just the chief executive officer or the C-suite. It can be allowed to flourish at every level of the organisation provided the roles, and deliverables, of individuals and teams are clearly defined


While there is consensus on the importance of leadership, and therefore, the importance of leadership development, I was told the other day that leadership development as currently practised in corporate Sri Lanka is a waste of time, energy, and money. 

Following are some questions which corporate leaders, in Sri Lanka, must ask themselves in confirming or refuting this allegation.

Do we have a Master Leadership Development Plan (MLDP) covering the short, medium, and long terms? 

Is the MLDP congruent with the company’s purpose, strategy, goals, and objectives?

Are the separate Leadership Development Programs (LDPs) part of the company’s MLDP? Do these parts fit, snugly, into the totality of the human resources management plan?

How often do we approve LDPs which are outside the framework of the MLDP? Were such exceptions justified?

Do the people selected for LDPs possess the intelligence, talent, acumen, and other first level qualities to be a leader?

Do we map LDPs to individuals? Is such mapping based on ‘needs analysis’ and/or on other objective criteria?

Is leadership development mapping aimed at plugging gaps in competencies and soft skills and in furthering talent management, succession planning et cetera?

At the completion of a LDP, is the subject individual given an opportunity to practise what she/he has learnt? 

Do we have medium to long-term tracking of the progress of individuals who have participated in LDPs and ongoing tracking of individuals who are participating in LDPs?

Do we calculate the Return on Investment of our LDPs?

Are the persons responsible for selecting LDPs held accountable to explaining how their spending has produced enduring changes in participants’ competencies, skills, capabilities, and capacities and whether the spending has produced and/or improved overall outcomes?

Should we continue to fund these efforts without requiring deep dive accountability? (Note: Not all investments in human resource development can be directly related to financial outcomes. Soft skills development of employees can lead to an upping of well-being and that can indirectly contribute to increased productivity). 

Do we clearly understand the distinction between leadership development and management development? 

Does our organisational culture support the demonstration of leadership at the lower levels in the company? Do we follow a spirit of empowerment?

Are our LDPs ‘feel good, tick-the-box’ actions which make us look progressive in the public eye and make our annual reports more read worthy, or do they add real value? 

Money down the drain

All in all, it is essential that leadership development caters to an organisational need and is carefully planned and monitored. If not, it will be a case of money down the drain.

While there exist many definitions of leadership, the one which appeals to me is that by Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States of America who stated, (quote), “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it” (unquote). It is a definition which has taken deep root in my heart and mind and has modulated my behavioural styles in interacting with my superiors, peers, colleagues, and teams in my corporate life and with my fellow human beings in my social and personal life.

Irrespective of how leadership is defined, there is little disagreement regarding the positive impacts of an effective leader. A leader by basic definition must have followers, followers who believe in, and are inspired by, her/him. Whether it be countries, political establishments, corporate entities, sports teams, thought movements, welfare/community organisations, activist groupings, or other associations and bodies, the positive impact of a good leader is unarguable. 

The various political, economic and social fiascos emanating from failure to inspire a shared vision, economic mismanagement, nepotism, bribery and corruption, break down in the rule of law, loss of freedom of expression and poor change management et cetera which have led to an increasing divide between the rich and the poor and inequity in other facets of society, buttress my belief that there is a dearth of leadership skills at national, societal, and corporate levels in present Sri Lanka. In this light, conventional wisdom opines that continuous leadership development is essential.

Recognising the difference between management and leadership is a vital first step in identifying people for leadership development. Numerous are the instances where the distinction between managerial skills and leadership skills has been misunderstood. Generically, management is a set of identifiable hard processes which keep the organisation functioning. In a continuum between ‘task’ and ‘relationship,’ management is weighted more to ‘task.’ On the contrary, leadership is abstract and woolly, and focuses on inspiring people. It consists of a mix of ‘task’ and ‘relationship,’ with relationship being higher and the mix being dependent on the situation and individual or individuals. Planning, organising, designing, resourcing, controlling, and monitoring are typical management actions whilst inspiring, listening, empowering, empathising, motivating et cetera are typical leadership actions. 

Communications, both verbal and non-verbal apply to, and are important in, both. The elements comprising ‘management’ can be taught easier and can be usually delegated. Leadership is the link between purpose and passion. Leaders want to make a difference while managers want to get the job done. Quoting Steve Jobs, “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things, they never thought they could.” The lines which divide management from leadership are not easily discernible. There is considerable blurring. Leadership is mostly about people. 

Effective leaders are those who enable positive people performance through role modelling, inspiring a shared vision, facilitating an environment of open and frank discussion, licensing the challenge of the status quo, enabling empowerment and decision making, and celebrating success. You do not necessarily have to be a good manager to be a good leader or vice versa. Leadership is hierarchy agnostic. In a corporate setting, leadership need not be confined to just the chief executive officer or the C-suite. It can be allowed to flourish at every level of the organisation provided the roles, and deliverables, of individuals and teams are clearly defined. If not, it will be a case of too many leaders and too few followers! 

Natural leaders can be found anywhere

Natural leaders can be found anywhere in the organisation. Simply stated, wherever there is a leader there will be followers. Leadership development must not be confused with management development. Technical experts who are brilliant in their roles are often not great leaders and the corporate may not see them as leaders either. Whether one could be an effective leader without being an effective manager is a frequently asked question. Surveys indicate that it is rare to find an effective leader in a corporate who is not a good manager.

Today’s, and tomorrow’s leaders must evolve in ‘darwinian’ rhythm with changes in the external environment and new world thinking. They must deal with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, and unceasing change. These are phenomena which pervade every facet of modern life and that too in a manner not seen before. 

As stated by Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, “Change is the only constant”. In this backdrop, leaders must be agile, open minded and receptive to new ideas. Continuous learning in the form of leadership development, if implemented astutely, is a mechanism which can give life to these traits in unearthing latent potential in an organisation. 

When nominating participants into LDPs, it is desirable for the decision makers and selectors to appreciate the dynamics of ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’ in leadership. There is, and there has been, an ongoing debate whether leaders are a product of nature or whether they can be shaped through a carefully applied process of nurture. We regularly come across people who effortlessly command respect of, and relate to, others. We describe them as natural leaders i.e. ‘naturals. These are the people who, from a young age, display the qualities of forth righteousness, confidence, courage, charisma, determination, grit, and common sense. They are never content with the status quo, are positively restless and dare to make a difference. These urges, behaviours and qualities are intrinsic in their mental maps which give them a head-start over ‘non-naturals’ in asserting themselves in situations which others avoid, particularly in times of crisis. 

Emotional intelligence and application skills

The proverb, “fools rush in where angels dare to tread” do not sit with them. Lest we get carried away, it must be noted that the mere possession of these nature bestowed qualities does not guarantee success. Their emotional intelligence and application skills must be nurtured through structured development. Whilst the ‘naturals’ may have an initial advantage in becoming effective leaders because of their in-born traits, leadership is not the domain of a blessed few. When driven by a personal vision and mission which are pursued with tons of commitment and perseverance and seasoned with learning, application, exposure, and experience, anyone can step out of their zones of familiarity and lead. Many are the artistes and sportsmen who, notwithstanding whether they were ‘naturals’ or ‘non-naturals’, became masters in their fields through commitment, disciplined training, and exposure. Further, there are umpteen instances of people whose leadership skills were discovered when overcoming personal challenges. 

During COVID, there were many employees who management had previously perceived as being very ordinary, rising above their assumed competencies and performing extraordinary feats. All these go to prove that leadership skills can be acquired via appropriate programs of coaching and mentoring, on-the-job training, familiarity, and experience. Reiterating my earlier thoughts, the company must, as a first step, identify whether the subject employee requires leadership development or management development. If it is leadership development, a judgement must be made as to whether he/she has the requisite basic skills to be a leader. 

The lack of a disciplined process, and thoroughness, in evaluating the pros and cons of contending LDPs is, in my view, the prime culprit of LDPs not providing expected benefits. Eventually, and quite rightly, such programs will be labelled as exercises which were wasteful of time, energy, and money. The over-arching goal of a leadership development program is to increase participants’ skills in influencing and motivating people. 

In this vein of thinking, the first question which must be asked in evaluating a LDP is, “What are the deliverables promised by the program and are those deliverables supported by a needs analysis?” Needs Analysis, in a simplistic form, is the process of identifying gaps between what should be happening and what is happening. Next, the selectors must carefully scrutinise the contents of the program and gain confidence that the stated methodology will deliver the specified outcomes. The methodology of the program must consist of, amongst others, the curriculum, teaching methods, program milestones, frequency of ‘on-the-run’ feedback, knowledge transfer techniques, and regular competency assessments. Thirdly, there must be an impact analysis. In an impact analysis, there must be a ‘starting’ threshold and an anticipated ‘ending’ position. 

A spoonful of imagination and a dash of ingenuity

Admittedly, the establishment of objective indicators to measure improvements in soft skills is challenging. In most LDPs, there will be a considerable time-lag before identifiable quantitative measures emerge. Even then, there will be challenges in linking cause with effect. Based on my personal experience, what is required in establishing such measures and yardsticks are a spoonful of imagination and a dash of ingenuity. Nothing is impossible! LDPs do not come cheap. Meticulous pre-examination, rigorous thinking and sound measurement are central to ensuring that good money is chasing relevant objectives. The participant’s immediate supervisor is a sensible first port of call in determining whether the program has influenced behaviour change. Follow-up surveys with superiors, peers and subordinates six to nine months after the program can also add to the conclusions.

LDPs, and for that matter most training/coaching programs, are often selected on features which entice participants to attend than on features which support the delivery capability of the programs. The use of such marketing strategies by service providers is not surprising given that leadership development is a global multibillion-dollar industry with a compound annual growth rate of approximately nine per cent. Whilst a marketing strategy aimed at delighting a key stakeholder, the participant, through bells and whistles, cannot be faulted, we the paying customer must be more discerning. 

To compound this, many Sri Lankan corporates ask the participants, themselves, to rate the usefulness of a program. Whilst there are merits in using participant ratings in evaluating an LDP, we must be cognisant of the strong likelihood that participants’ ratings will be influenced by aspects which are not positively correlated to actual learning. Therefore, a total dependence on participants’ rating will not give the true picture of the effectiveness of the program in improving the targeted behaviours. The big bucks shelled out to savvy marketeers may not be producing the desired intent. 

As a corporate leader, I found that ‘gimmick-free’, practical, country-centric and career path enhancing leadership development blended with on-the-job experiences is more powerful than classroom learning. The exuberance which participants display immediately after a classroom training program wanes rapidly if not practically linked to their role deliverables. It is also my experience that, in-situ, spaced out learning of leadership is infinitely more powerful than a ‘big-bang’. In this way, learning can be intertwined with the challenges, and dilemmas which the participants encounter, day to day, on-job and, more importantly, it is on a ‘live’ platform. 

Further the ‘hot-hot’ discussion, analysis and sharing of knowledge linking solutions to the subject event facilitate learning effectiveness. It is noteworthy that there is no definitive right or wrong when dealing with human beings. The style is very situational and personal. Leadership proficiency is usually acquired via a trial, and error approach. The sustained transfer of learning is the much-sought Holy Grail. 

More actions which can heighten the efficacy of LDPs

There are three other actions which can significantly heighten the efficacy of LDPs. These are, * Enlisting the support of C-Suite Executives in reinforcing behaviours through personal involvement, feedback, recognition, and reward. Sharing personal stories, hosting an interactive discussion, participating in a panel, or heading an action learning project are examples. The use of leaders as teachers and role models is a powerful tool, * Convey to the participants ‘what is in it’ for them.’ In addition to explaining how the LDP adds value to their career within the company, they can be apprised of how it aids in their individual development. So, share the scope of the LDP with the participants and obtain they buy-in to the goals of the program, * Provide participants opportunities to apply, and experiment with, their learning. Heading multi-functional projects is a way of facilitating the application and experimentation of learnings.

John C. Maxwell, influential American author, and orator, observed, “The single biggest way to impact an organisation is to focus on leadership development. There is almost no limit to the potential of an organisation that recruits good people, raises them up as leaders and continually develops them.” 

When done right, leadership development is never a waste of time, energy, and money.

(The writer is currently a Leadership Coach, Mentor and Consultant and boasts over 50+ years of experience in very senior positions in the corporate world – local and overseas. www.ronniepeiris.com.)

Recent columns