Rethinking leadership development - it's about strategy execution

About 15 years ago a major Australian resources company set out to develop ‘world class leadership’.  But Professor Chris Worley rebuts[i] the usual prescription of ‘more leadership’.  He argues that asking people to change behaviours without changing the underlying system – the structure, systems and processes – is borderline immoral. 

Leadership requires us to develop new behaviours and create a context in which those behaviours can flourish.  My research explored the barriers organisational context creates in the pursuit of 'world class leadership'.  These prove to be at least as important as individual factors.   But what are the conditions we need to create to enable leadership?  

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Austerity is not a strategy

Three clients, three strategy workshops, 8 days: intense.  Each client is at a different stage of the strategy life cycle (see my recent blog).  And each workshop highlighted a theme which reflected where that client sits on the strategy life cycle.

Mining services clients are clearly in the ‘rebuild’ phase.  For about two years now the mining sector has drawn up the moat bridge.  The more recent collapse of the oil price suggests the oil and gas sector is about twelve months behind the miners.  

Mining services companies have followed suit, with even more dramatic headcount cuts, many of them in survival mode.  Austerity became the main game.  

But let’s be clear: austerity is not a strategy.  So what is next?  

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The profound responsibility of leadership

The most creative conversations of our professional lives engage both our emotional and analytic selves.  These conversations are the source of inspiration and sense-making that leave you buzzing hours later; that wake you in the middle of the night; that create new insights through connecting previously disconnected ideas. 

I had such a conversation a few months ago with a colleague.  Exploring the role of purpose in organisations, he challenged me to articulate my purpose: why do I do what I do? 

One of the outcomes of that conversation was a paragraph I wrote about the profound responsibility of leadership.  I didn’t post it at the time, at least in part because I suspect for many business leaders – prospective clients – it might seem ‘too soft’.  But after some interesting conversations yesterday I decided I would share my world view.  So here’s what I wrote those months ago: 

I believe in the capacity of leadership to create great organisations … organisations that can develop and execute strategies that match the demands of a complex and changing environment; that can build connections with customers that transcend the simple transactions that characterise too many market places; that create customer experiences that build longevity into the relationships.  And this comes about through leaderships’ capacity and commitment to engage with the people who are the body and soul of any organisation and want to make a contribution that goes beyond just earning a wage. 

This is the primal responsibility of leadership.  If not this, then what is our job as leaders?

I also believe in the self-evident truth: it is the leadership teams which need to design, develop and energise the change in organisations.  Our job as consultants and advisors is to help them in that pursuit. 

This is my ‘bias.’  It shapes the conversations, approach, and expectations in my work as a strategist, facilitator and teacher.  And I think this is largely reflective of my clients.  The people I have worked with over the years who I connect most deeply with do feel a profound responsibility. 

But over time many leaders slowly, often unconsciously, withdraw from this profound sense of responsibility, reflecting a felt lack of a shared sense of responsibility among their peers and their leaders.    Or sometimes in the face of challenges that seem overwhelming.  But this model of leadership demands institutional leadership: it is beyond the capacity of individual leaders.

Do you feel this profound responsibility?  How often do you experience deep, creative conversations within your organisation which engage both your emotional and rational-analytic self as you explore your collective role as leaders?  Do the conversations leave you buzzed?  Or just frustrated?  If the latter, I suspect the ‘emotional’ self has been ‘shut out’.  Caution: the failure to engage the emotional self can ultimately lead to ‘burn out’.  

Stronger no longer - what now?

One of my resources clients recently shared his observations after returning from a marketing conference and from a series of meetings with many of his customers.  The message was loud and clear: the ‘stronger for longer’ mantra of the resources sector is now ‘stronger no longer’. 

What now?  Of course, most resources executives know ‘what’ to do: cut capital spend; cut exploration; reduce travel; reduce headcount; drive productivity.  But the real leadership challenge is not ‘what’ but ‘how’.   

Here’s some of the ideas I offered from the perspective of an organisational strategist. 

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