Thoughts on Future Trends in Leadership Development

In 2011, Nicholas Petrie was an international business consultant, operating his own consulting company and implementing customized leadership programs for senior leaders around the world.

After years of working with organizations, Nicholas began to have some doubts regarding the effectiveness of the methods he and his colleagues were using to develop leaders in organizations:

It seemed that the nature of the challenges that managers were facing was rapidly changing; however, the methods that we were using to develop them were staying the same.

Nicholas decided to spend some time to investigate:

These continual, nagging doubts led me to take a one-year sabbatical at Harvard University with the goal of answering one question–what will the future of leadership development look like?

Nicholas conducted an extensive literature review across Harvard University departments (Education, Business, Law, Government, Psychology) and conducted interviews with 30 experts in the field.

The result was Future Trends in Leadership Development, a white paper published by the Center for Creative Leadership which documents the current business leadership environment and suggest four leadership trends for the future.

In his research, Nicholas identified one consistent trend:

The environment has changed — it is more complex, volatile, and unpredictable.

And a consensus formed around how to respond:

The skills needed for leadership have also changed—more complex and adaptive thinking abilities are needed.

The Environment Has Changed—It Is Becoming More Complex and Challenging

As the world becomes more global and connected, the total number of interacting elements increases, adding more entropy to the system. As a result, both the pace of change and the complexity of challenges are increasing every year. This has been defined by others as “wicked problems”.

The army phrase “VUCA” describes the new environment:

Volatile - Change happens rapidly and on a large scale.

Uncertain - The future cannot be predicted with any precision.

Complex - Challenges are complicated by many factors and there are few single causes or solutions.

Ambiguous - There is little clarity on what events mean and what effect they may have.

Our new environment contains highly ambiguous elements that are interconnected in non-linear ways, and there is simply too much information for individual leaders to process effectively.

Leaders of the future must be adaptable, self-aware, collaborative, comfortable with ambiguity, and use systems thinking to face these complex challenges.

Trend #1: Increased focus on vertical development

Businesses currently focus on horizontal development - competency-based technical training. This is great for clearly-defined problems with documented solutions, but fails when you encounter challenges you haven’t seen before. As challenges become more complex and variable, businesses need to focus on vertical development: advancing a person’s thinking capability, not on specific competencies.

The reason that managers at higher levels of cognitive development are able to perform more effectively is that they can think in more complex ways.

A commonly-referenced framework for measuring levels of cognitive development is researcher Robert Kegan’s Adult Levels of Development:

Level 3 – Socialized mind - We are shaped by the expectations of those around us. What we think and say is strongly influenced by what we think others want to hear.

Level 4 – Self-authoring mind - We have developed our own ideology or internal compass to guide us. Our sense of self is aligned with our own belief system, personal code, and values. We can take stands, set limits on behalf of our own internal “voice.”

Level 5 – Self-transforming mind - We have our own ideology, but can now step back from that ideology and see it as limited or partial. We can hold more contradiction and oppositeness in our thinking and no longer feel the need to gravitate towards polarized thinking.

Successful organizations of the future will empower leaders and staff to move up this ladder to new levels of cognition. But there’s a catch: as opposed to horizontal development, vertical development must be actively wanted and earned by the individual, not forced upon them by the organization. Kegan’s research identified four conditions that must be met for vertical development to occur:

  1. The person feels consistently frustrated by a situation, dilemma, or challenge in their life
  2. It causes them to feel the limits of their current way of thinking
  3. It is an area of their life that they care about deeply
  4. There is sufficient support that they are able to persist in the face of anxiety and conflict.

To catalyze the vertical development process, Harvard professors and researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey developed the “Immunity to Change” system:

Leaders choose behaviors they are highly motivated to change. They then […] identify the anxieties and assumptions they have about what would happen if they were to actually make those changes.

The participant then designs and runs a small series of small experiments in the workplace to test out the validity of their assumptions.

As people realize that the assumptions they have been operating under are false or at least partial, the resistance to change diminishes and the desired behavior change happens more naturally.

Trend #2: Transfer of greater development ownership to the individual

In an organization, the process driving learning and development is traditionally considered to be “someone else’s job” (HR or boss). Individuals sit in the passenger seat while the organization “tells me what I need to get better at and how to do it” through formalized training programs.

But this is no longer applicable. Remember, vertical development can only be activated when an individual feels motivated and responsible for their own personal development.

At the same time, there is a growing demand for executive coaching in organizations. When you compare coaching to training, some distinct differences reveal themselves:

Coaching, not required training, is the more effective tool for empowering vertical development of individuals. Future-forward businesses will embrace the transition from training to coaching and democratize it through the entire organization, allowing staff members to take ownership of their own development.

Organizations such as W.L Gore, IDEO, and Google have embraced these changes. At Google, staff member are expected to “drive their own development by using peers to gather their own feedback on areas to improve and to coach each other on how they can develop.”

To encourage individuals to participate, fostering a sense of autonomy & ownership is critical:

If the experience of development is combined with a sense of autonomy over the development process, individuals are likely to gain a significant boost in their motivation to proceed.

A leading method for fostering coaching across an organization is feedforward coaching:

An individual engages trusted colleagues in a peer coaching process, asking each colleague to do three things: focus on the future, give only suggestions, make these something positive the person can do. Participants choose one or two areas they want to improve and five to eight internal people they trust who become feedforward coaches. The leader gathers monthly suggestions from the feedforward coaches as to how she can improve in her chosen areas and progress reports on how much she is changing.

The process is repeated as continuous process, encouraging behavior change with support and accountability.

Trend #3: Greater focus on collective rather than individual leadership

The new complex environment can be categorized as “adaptive challenges”, a phrase coined by Ronald Heifetz in which “it is not possible for any one individual to know the solution or even define the problem.” Adaptive challenges are best solved through collaboration with groups of stakeholders who can add their “piece to the puzzle”.

To facilitate solving adaptive challenges, we are shifting away from a leadership model dominated by individual leaders toward a model which embraces networks of leadership.

The Arab Spring (and most recently the Hong Kong protests) are a perfect example. There was no “leader” of the movement to overthrow Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; it was individuals who “utilized social networking tools to force regime change” through “leadership […] distributed throughout their network.”

With the internet “flattening hierarchies and decentralizing control”, networks will become the de-facto organizing principle for future organizations. As a result, leadership will no longer by “tied to a position of authority in the hierarchy”; it can exist in any node in the network.

Academia is noticing this change; there has been a shift in the definition of leadership from an individual to leadership as a process:

“Leaders are any people in the organization actively involved in the process of producing direction, alignment, and commitment.” (McCauley & Van Velsor, 2004)

Organizations that fully embrace this transition and foster smart leadership networks will thrive. Organizations can support this transition through:

Leadership is not contained in job roles but in the process that takes place across a network of people to continuously clarify direction, establish alignment, and garner commitment (DAC) of stakeholders.

Organizations that expect to operate in VUCA environments will quickly need to develop the types of networks and cultures in which leadership flows through the system. Complex environments will reward flexible and responsive, collective leadership, and the time is fast approaching for organizations to redress the imbalance that has been created by focusing exclusively on the individual leadership model.

Leadership Trend 4: Much greater focus on innovation in leadership development models

We know that our current methods for leadership development are becoming increasingly obsolete each passing year. Yet we are still in the early stages of defining new leadership development models. It will start with the innovators in organizations:

These innovators will need to be prepared to experiment and fail in order to gain more feedback from which to build their next iterations.

The trends listed above are starting points, but much work needs to be done to advance research on this topic and to shift the mindset:

Build more collective, rather than individual, leadership in the network. Focus on vertical development, not just horizontal. Transfer greater ownership of development back to the people.

Additional Reading

For a deeper dive on the challenges to increasing complexity and “wicked problems”, check out Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Author David Epstein does a great job contextualizing the unique challenges of wicked problems and identifies proven methods for overcoming these challenges, including embracing analogous thinking, collecting outsider perspectives, and seeking incongruence.

To learn more about collective leadership and future organizational models — including self-management — I highly recommend Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness by Frederic Laloux. Laloux researches innovate organizations across the world and documents the systems and processes used in order to distribute decision-making and authority to all individuals.

BIG shout out to Paul Millerd for sharing this white paper with me and inspiring me to write this! For more on the future of reinventing work, follow Paul on Twitter at @p_millerd.