A Brave New World Of Leadership

Welcome to the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world where the new scarcity is talent, specifically leadership talent according to the PwC Global CEO survey and Oxford economics Global talent 2021, which state that the number one priority for CEOs is leadership. Yes, you read correctly, leadership came in ahead of meeting with customers, improving organizational efficiency, breaking into new markets and product innovation!

Companies now compete to survive and thrive based on their talent and the tech tonic forces that have come together from globalization, demographics, technology and a multi-generational workforce. These factors combined have shifted the supply, demand and expectations of talent across markets to create something of a perfect talent storm.

There has never been a more difficult nor a more exciting time to be in learning and development. As a profession we are now at a crossroads. We are in the spotlight and our context is a complex and challenging one. The stakes are high and the imperative to step up is critical for our leaders and our companies. We have reached a tipping point where we must each decide if we will be brave enough to challenge the orthodoxy of what we as a profession have been doing for the last few decades. Are we ready to be open to questioning what we think we know about leadership development, about learning and what it means to lead in today’s VUCA world?

If we consider the research the facts are sobering. According to the 2014 Corporate Learning Fact book, by Bersin by Deloitte, companies globally spent 130 billion US dollars worldwide on learning and development in 2013, with the largest bucket, an estimated 35%, going towards leadership and management development. Despite these high levels of investment, global leadership gaps continue to be the most pressing issues on the minds of CEOs, business and HR leaders.

While human capital professionals, CEO’s and business leaders are clear on leadership development being the priority, both CEOs and human capital leaders are not as certain about how to actually tackle the issue. In fact, less than 40% of HC respondents express high confidence in their current approach or consider their efforts innovative.

This begs the question that if we are spending such vast amounts of time and other resources developing talent, then why is it that leadership shortages persist? What we do know is that satisfaction with training unfortunately does not translate into business impact.

If we are to embrace Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results then perhaps we should explore what we might consider doing differently.

Our legacy of 20th century leadership development practices.

The Content

Leadership development content has largely remained unchanged over the last few decades. This is true for much of, but of course not all leadership development in corporations, corporate executive education and MBA programs. This is certainly not to say that the foundations or traditional models are not useful; however, one might argue that it is far from enough to properly equip leaders for the very different and complex workplace of the 21st century.

New world of work leadership derailers

In the past, leaders were more likely to be passed over for promotions or let go due to gaps in functional or industry knowledge. Today, mastering these are no longer nearly enough. Despite considerable traditional business strengths, many leaders struggle without adequate skills or insight to master or at least better manage the multiple challenges of dealing with ambiguity, navigating the complexities of multiple stakeholder relationships, influencing, politics, use of political capital, applying different lenses and horizon scanning which are key to their ability to succeed in this evolving world of work.

Context matters

Leadership development is often dispensed with a generic, one size fits all approach. However, we know that previously successful leaders who are put into new contexts can and often do struggle and sometimes fail. How one would approach a turnaround versus opening a new market, taking over from an icon or leading in a new culture all require different strategies and approaches. Company culture and where the organization is in their journey also matter. Furthermore, as leaders transition from level to level and as they progress up the ladder, they require learning new skills and leaving behind old practices. They need to acquire new lenses and manage time and priorities differently all of which is too often absent in leadership development.

From providing answers to developing complex, critical thinking skills

Today’s complexity does not lend itself well to being solved by memorizing stock answers or business models. Leaders today need to build complex analytical and critical thinking skills. Programs and facilitators need to embrace the reality of not having a single right answer for each question, push thinking skills, expand perspectives and build the ability to generate potential scenarios and envision the short medium and longer term implications that flow from them. Learning in context should take into account the broader system. For example, analyzing how decisions are made in one part of the business may cause ripple effects across other parts of the value chain or system.

Developing teams and building trust

Building leadership capability and thinking of it in terms of a talent supply chain where each level takes a more active responsibility and actual accountability for the next could be one of the strategies towards leadership development and sustainability. The capability gaps combined with the disconnects between leadership and their employees as reported in the global workforce survey 2014 from Towers Watson could create a powerful lever for leadership development to address trust, consistency between words and deeds and leader led development to address some significant engagement and retention drivers.

Currently, only 48% of employees’ report that their top management is doing a good job of providing effective leadership and less than half of employees think their senior managers care about their well-being. Further, less than half think that their bosses have time for the people aspects of their jobs. These findings indicate some clear opportunities for leadership development.

From skill sets to mindsets

Leadership development has tended to focus on skill sets without sufficiently addressing the underlying mindsets. Helping leaders to explore their underlying mindsets or values and how these values drive their behaviors or habits provides an opportunity to increase self-awareness and to shed light on the extent to which their current behaviors might be serving them well or getting in their way.

For example, a highly controlling person, or someone with an excessive need to be liked will need to tackle the underlying drivers before they apply a skill set of delegation which requires trusting others or the skill set of being able to be decisive and make difficult decisions that may make them unpopular. Uncovering these underlying drivers and defensive psychological mechanisms that may be preventing them from unlearning and growing new more productive behaviors and practices allow behavioral breakthroughs to take place and enable skill sets to actually be applied.

The mindsets work of world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has powerful implications for learning, development and performance. In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They focus on getting the right grade or answer. They believe that talent alone creates success, without effort. When something gets difficult or they might fail they disengage or use defensive mechanisms, which act as barriers to their growth.

Conversely, their counter parts with a growth mindset believe that it is not a question of intelligence but rather just something that have not learned yet… This view creates thirst for learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. They view failing as simply a necessary part of the journey to achieving and are not put off but rather fuelled by the extra effort needed to master the next step. Virtually all great people have had these qualities. Teaching a growth mindset creates motivation and productivity in the worlds of business, education, and sports.

Neuroscience, neuroplasticity and mindfulness applied to leadership

Whereas this body of knowledge is hardly new, it is continually evolving, especially in its application to leadership. A healthy caution in interpretation and focusing on only robust research can bring a valuable added dimension to the development of the leadership function.

Creating an agile workforce with future skills

The institute for the future and Oxford Economics, Human Capital Report 2021, as well as other reputable sources agree that future skills and agility are needed to effectively compete today and in the future world of work.

The how and when of leadership development

We need to make learning easily accessible anytime and in a variety of formats to suit individual learner preferences such as podcasts, videos, e-learning interactive lessons, articles, factsheets, e-books, clubs, coaching and e-communities.

Our history as a function is one of taking learning out of work and placing it in a classroom. We might want to consider flipping this orthodoxy as well by building learning inputs into actual work or strategic priorities so that as people do their actual work they have opportunities for input, to reflect, to integrate and consolidate new skills and insights rather than divorcing learning from the work and relegating it a classroom.

It is clear that there is much to be done in the evolution of leadership development.


Tracey is a Canadian Expat of 20 years who has lived in Asia, Europe and North America. She has worked in regional and global roles for the last twenty years. She has been part of the executive team in multinational corporations such as Standard Chartered Bank, Honeywell, Henley Business School in the UK and as Managing Director international for the CIPD.