Lightening the load of leadership

Leadership development: an industry worth over $3.4bn. Are we seeing the results of that? I don’t think so and here’s why.

Do you remember the days when Head & Shoulders was one shampoo?

I was online shopping last night and was struck by the fact that in one shop there was a choice of 32 different variations of this once lonely bottle. 32!

OaaaKaaaay, and what’s that got to do with leadership development?


Not hair volume. Volume of content, information, concepts, theories, models, ideas. Your personality alone can be tested by hundreds of different tools to tell you which animal, colour or collection of letters you apparently are.

Then motivation, another vast array, with a Google search top result being an article about the top 8 theories, so more than 8 theories of motivation.

It then reminded me of someone I met on holiday. She’d left the executive corporate life to run a pony trekking business in the area. She said of leadership “What’s there to do? Treat people with care and respect and pay them fairly, job done”.

And yet, according to this 2019 research, the “leadership training market is one of the only L&D markets that has experienced growth independent of economic trends year after year.”

More time and money going into something which, based on this quote from an ADP 2019 report, doesn’t seem to be helping.

“For the second year running, bad management is the biggest barrier to productivity, and the issue appears to be getting worse. Nearly a quarter (23%) of the survey respondents name bad management as the biggest drain on productivity”

And yet the money keeps pouring into leadership sausage-machine programmes, with expectations that when you’ve been on the conveyor belt you will think this, you will have these feelings, you will display these behaviours. Tick. Job done. [Subext — anything else is not OK and you won’t still have a job!]

And fair enough, when you don’t know there’s anything else that can be done to develop leaders, what else would you do?

First, look at what we really want

Go back to what that lady on holiday said. Compare it with everything that’s ever come up on a leadership or team development programme you’ve been part of, compare it with what you’ve found for yourself in your working life.

Consistently the themes that come through are that people want: to have clarity of direction of travel, to be able to say what they think, to be listened to, to have healthy debates, to feel like they’re making a difference.

And leaders, when sharing in those leadership development rooms and retreats, want: to be clear on direction of travel, to listen, to be open to new ideas, to feel like they’re making a difference.

It just doesn’t always translate onto the ground.

What’s going wrong?


Consider the load on a leader. Their day job, which they may or may not be expert at, their peer network relationships, relationships with those ‘above’ and leading those ‘below’.

I’ll write about balance in a future post but for now, let’s remember this volume.

Then, to add to that, we pile in a bunch of theories, models, tools and concepts about the type of person you are, the dangers that come with being that type of person — so you need to guard against those, the way you should be instead (because clearly you haven’t ticked all the colours or animals so you aren’t the finished product), the way you have to have conversations, how to apply the tool or theory you’ve learnt, remembering to be humble and vulnerable, while also being clear and visionary, oh and sometimes instructing, and….yes coaching, and…

Hmm I wonder why we’re not seeing the difference we hope for with leadership development.

If all this was really the stuff that made the difference, and with a bunch of smart people in the leadership seats, don’t you think we’d have seen the impact by now? Don’t you think within a few years the vast majority would be awesome leaders and naturally role modelling that to those around them?

But we do better with less on our mind

Phew! Stop for a moment. Pause. Breathe.

Think of a time when you had an awesome conversation with a member of your team, or someone else in the business.

A conversation where you inspired and sparked off each other, where you listened with high quality attention, where you asked questions and gave your opinion, where you left the other person — and yourself — feeling motivated and full of energy for the work.

During that conversation at what point did you consider which tool to apply, what strategy to adopt, what level of humility was appropriate?

None. Because all thoughts of you and them, of right and wrong, had disappeared. You were present in the moment with all the resources you needed to have that conversation and all the ‘right’ things to say, because in that conversation even if you’d said something ‘wrong’ it would still have been OK.

Because you were speaking from somewhere other than your psychology, somewhere other than your intellect. Speaking from the heart.

Our heart knows all about listening, and asking, and debating, and motivating, and resilience, and humility, and strength, and…everything we think we need as leaders. It’s already there. It’s just buried under a load of other stuff and all it needs is help to be uncovered, not to have more piled on.

Begin the excavation, lighten the load of leadership, and brilliance is found.

With love, Helen

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