by: Issues: May / June 2008. Categories: Leadership.

Now that the Great Man Theory of Leadership is dead, it’s reasonable to ask what makes a leader the most. In the end, says this author, it is self mastery. And as she writes, learning how to master the self is just one of five imperatives that, properly met, develop the kind of leaders to steer people and organizations to succeed.

Warrior virtues have always defined the successful leader. From the stories of ancient Greece to the novels, films, television dramas and pop songs of today, those who succeed against the odds are invariably the strong, the courageous, the resilient and the bold. The events of the last decade, however, have taught us painful lessons about the excesses of warrior leadership. The collapse of Enron is the obvious example, the current meltdown in the financial services industry is another. Warrior leadership has been exposed as wanting. Instead, it is ordinary heroes whom organisations need to foster if they are to fit themselves for the real world. These are leaders with a deep awareness of Self, who lead with humility as well as courage, leaders who can build teams characterised by strong inter-personal relationships as well as deliver results, and leaders who can set direction which attends to the needs of all the organisation’s stakeholders rather than, merely, the vociferous few.

Much has been written of late about how to create development pathways for real-world leaders. Typically, a range of solutions is recommended, including job rotations, on-line learning, special projects and mentoring. But the conventional, albeit costly, residential programme continues to be a favoured offering, making it essential that executives in people development harness the full power of the programme in their drive to turn their organisation into a talent-rich enterprise. But how do you do that?

This article addresses that question. The first section emphasizes the importance of creating your own, unique language for leadership, drawn from your business strategy. This should form the organising framework for the learning experience. The second advocates that you select providers in the scholar-practitioner mode – people who know that theory is practical and who can help others to apply it within their own spheres of influence. The third describes the in-programme learning journey you need to craft for your leaders to develop their inter-individual, group and system effectiveness. The fourth explores how you can help them to discover the behavioural choices that are available to them. And, finally, the fifth section offers ten lessons from the field to enable you to demonstrate that all-important real return on the investment made.

Step 1: Develop a leadership brand

One short-term solution to the challenge of creating an effective leadership development programme is to buy an external provider and their solution. There are plenty out there to choose from as this is a big business. The best will be researching the field, keen to differentiate themselves by their particular leadership formula, and finding innovative ways to teach. But no executive in people development who wants to take his or her organisation into the future should buy anyone else’s formula. Such approaches can never be more than what Dave Ulrich of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and his co-writer Norm Smallwood call “standard-issue leader training,” that based on generic leadership models. In their words, “vanilla competency models generate vanilla leadership.” At The NTL Institute for Applied Behavioural Science, my colleagues and I, who have been investigating this subject for more than 50 years, have never discovered a universal formula for leadership. What we have discovered is that great leadership manifests itself in many different ways.

Busy as you are, a more time-intensive, more strategic approach is required. It begins with the development of what Ulrich and Smallwood call a leadership brand. This process involves, firstly, “nailing the prerequisites of leadership” in your business by knowing how you want to be viewed by your stakeholders (although I would encourage you to consult more widely than merely your customers and investors as Ulrich and Smallwood suggest: consider your employees, for example, the very people who are to be led). And, secondly, it involves articulating a company identity based on that knowledge which you can represent in a clear statement of “leadership brand.” This brand can then be translated into sets of meaningful challenges for each level of leadership in your organisation (and, therefore, into the learning outcomes for different programme offerings). All the evidence suggests that, when companies align the development of their leaders with their business strategy, their leadership development work itself becomes strategic. The reason they win is because they have developed their leaders in a way that makes them successful.

For example, in 1999 the custodians of leadership development in Royal Dutch Shell embarked on an important consultation process with the different businesses in the Shell Group to ascertain the most critical leadership challenges which the organization faced. They analyzed them and sorted them into nine themes which describe the distinct set of capabilities that leaders in Shell need to develop to meet the expectations of all their stakeholders – shareholders, government, employees and their families, customers, neighbours, suppliers and so on. This set of capabilities has become the lexicon or the language of leadership in the business. The company’s extensive suite of learning programmes are all focused on developing cadres of leaders (at the emerging, mid-level, experienced and executive levels) who are distinguished by their ability to demonstrate these essential capabilities.

Step 2: Source providers in the scholar-practitioner mode

Your second task is to source providers in the scholar-practitioner mode. Ultimately, of course, leadership is about application, but as Kurt Lewin, one of the founders of NTL is famously quoted as saying, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” Lewin’s genius was his ability to work at the intersection of theory and practice: He applied theory to his practice and, from his practice, he created theory. Similarly, your providers need to be at the developmental edge of their practice. They need to be curious, conceptual thinkers who are well-grounded in the latest methods and approaches for, say, developing strategy, making decisions, and leading change which can be applied in service of your leadership brand, so that they can help your leaders to determine the range of options that are available to them. But they must be experienced practitioners too, people who have previously grappled with these issues for themselves (so, developed strategy, made the lonely and difficult decisions, and led change efforts). They must also have made mistakes along the way and have the wisdom and humility to recognise them, and the commitment to help others avoid them, so that they can help your leaders to choose precisely which course of action to follow. It is this mix of theoretical knowledge and real-world experience which makes scholar-practitioners credible educators.

Step 3: Take your leaders on a learning journey

Your third task is to design a learning experience which will take your leaders on a development journey. (Expect your providers to contribute their thinking and experience to this task but do not relinquish control.) This journey must begin with knowing Self.

When we know Self, we may be able to lead Self. And not until we can lead Self do we earn the right to lead a team, lead an organisation. This is, of course, a piece of ancient wisdom. One of the wise pronouncements of Apollo, revealed to the Delphic oracle and carved into a lintel of the temple at Delphi, was “Know thyself.” And two thousand years before Apollo issued this injunction, prehistoric peoples were carving onto rocky outcrops along the coastline of North West Spain the symbol of the labyrinth, the image of a long meandering pathway which we find in the cultural artefacts of every human society and which always represents this same journey into oneself.

So, as you design learning experiences for your leaders, use what is, of course, familiar systems thinking to shape the journey you create for them. Provide opportunities for them to learn about their strengths and areas of stretch, mapped against your leadership brand, and then help them to work through what this means for them developmentally in terms of their inter-individual, group and system effectiveness. To illustrate, if you are an action-orientated, delivery-focused leader, your preference may well be to focus on getting things done – a preference which is highly valued in a left-brained dominated world, and reinforced by the measurement drivers of metrics, targets, KPIs, shareholder reports and so on. But to look into the future, to imagine new possibilities, to create a compelling vision for others and to motivate and inspire them to follow you there, requires a very different way of thinking and working (which we associate with the right hemisphere of the brain). When you know how you prefer to think and work, you can learn to manage yourself to ensure that you pay sufficient attention to establishing direction, aligning people, and motivating and inspiring them, as well as to planning and budgeting, organising and staffing, controlling and problem-solving. And so, with increasing facility with these different practices, you can become more effective in leading Self, in leading your team and, ultimately, in leading your organisation. Self Mastery really is the defining quality of great leadership.

Step 4: Help your leaders to discover themselves

But how do you provide your leaders with the opportunity to do this foundational work of knowing Self in order to lead Self and others? Our early pioneers in NTL developed “T-Group” technology, or facilitated group dialogue, for that very purpose. In what we now call Human Interaction Laboratories, participants engage over five days with a group of people they have never met before in a conversation of deep feedback and discovery in order to increase their understanding of themselves. These flagship programmes are the most popular, replicated and most effective courses available for developing self-awareness. Major Kenneth Clark of the New Hampshire National Guard, for example, reports that they have proven to be really effective in “opening the minds” of people in his organisation.

But it is not always possible for organisations to release their leaders for a week at a time for this special experience. If this is your dilemma, consider building individual coaching sessions into your programme designs during which coaches, who have observed your leaders in practice (so they may be the programme faculty, or they may be other skilled resources), can share with them what they have noticed about how they are exercising their leadership now and how they could exercise it differently in order to be more effective. Lectures in the classroom, which are essentially and simply cognitive experiences that help people determine the “what’s” of their leadership, can never create the disruption in being which leaders often need. I know, from my own practice in one of Britain’s largest manufacturing companies, Castle Cement, that it is only in my quiet coaching conversations with executives, one-on-one, in the evening after the teaching day, when I can help them to discover the behavioural choices that are available to them (the ‘hows’ of their leadership). And it is only then that the possibility of a transformational experience arises.

When I am working intensely in this way, I set myself five challenges. Firstly, I observe my coachees intently – I watch for what I can see in terms of their behaviours. Secondly, I listen for what I can hear in their speaking – what are their value drivers? What is it that holds their attention? What do their priorities seem to be? And so on. Thirdly I notice what I feel – the dynamic that they create with each other and with me. Recognising that I am part of that dynamic, I try, fourthly, to hold myself completely neutral, not allowing my prejudices and assumptions influence what I see, what I hear and what I feel, and therefore how I behave with them. And then finally, I find a way to believe in each one of the leaders I work with, to believe that they can find a way to be more effective in their own environments. When I can manage all of these activities together (activities which, as I discovered from a Singaporean colleague, are all incorporated into the Chinese character for ‘listen to’ – a useful aide-mémoire) the insights come to me.

But these are insights about how my coachees are exercising their leadership now. How might they exercise it differently in order to be more effective? Who could they be as a leader? At this point, I often use Daniel Goleman’s six styles of leadership as a set of lenses through which to view them. “What is their apparent default style?” I will ask myself. Is it predominantly Coercive? Authoritative? Affiliative? Democratic? Pacesetting? Or Coaching? And how could they expand their current repertoire of styles? When I understand this, I can help them to think through what they could do differently in order to be more effective in a wider range of business situations.

Step 5: Demonstrate a real Return-On-Investment

So, you have created a leadership brand and translated it into meaningful challenges for each level of leadership in your organisation; you have sourced providers in the scholar-practitioner mode; you have designed with those providers learning experiences which will take your leaders on a development journey which is relevant to their stage of development; and you have provided coaching opportunities to support them as they learn. Your final task is to demonstrate that this high-cost investment will have a real impact on business performance – a notoriously difficult challenge. Here are ten lessons from the field:

  • In the first instance, and self-evidently perhaps, ensure that the right people enrol in the right programmes. Identify those staff who have clear leadership responsibilities, and then sort those, from amongst them, who need in-role development from those with high-potential, who need help to navigate the next turning point in their career

  • Enter into a contract with participants which calls on them to make an explicit commitment to their own development as a prerequisite for earning a place on a programme

  • Provide them with feedback tools which enable them to gather data in advance about how they are performing with respect to your leadership brand – so that they enter their programme with some awareness of their areas for development

  • Coach supervisors so that they can support programme alumni in their efforts to sustain change

  • Incorporate engagement sessions with senior leaders who can role model the expression of thoughtful leadership, and who can articulate your organisation’s expectation that all those who seek to lead must be willing to learn continuously

  • Integrate multi-modular programmes with work-based projects in order to maintain momentum

  • Provide in-programme reflection opportunities during which participants can create an action plan (with milestones and timelines), so that they can hold themselves accountable for delivering against it

  • Gather participant feedback at the end of each programme, notice recurring recommendations, and address any design or faculty shortfalls

  • Invite and expect alumni, themselves, to demonstrate six months post-programme a positive and measurable improvement in both results and behaviour against your leadership brand (which their supervisor is able to validate)

  • Track data, at the meta level, on how your leadership brand is being expressed now (What do your leaders as a collective do well? What do they need to do differently?). As the post-programme data is generated, track these too, so that you can demonstrate pan-organisational improvements

If you apply these lessons from the field, you should be able to demonstrate to all your stakeholders the value of investing in the ordinary heroes who will take your business into its future.


Building a Leadership Brand, by Dave Urich and Norm Smallwood (Harvard Business Review July-August 2007)

Building Leaders at Every Level: A Leadership Pipeline, by Stephen Drotter and Ram Charan (Ivey Business Journal May-June 2001)

Talent Development: The Architecture of a Talent Pipeline That Works, by Jeffrey Gandz (Ivey Business Journal January/February 2006)

What Leaders Really Do, by John Kotter (Harvard Business Review May-June 1990)

Leadership That Gets Results, by Daniel Goleman (Harvard Business Review March – April 2000)