In need of a new approach

Just like “a box of chocolates” there are several distinctive leadership styles in play today (see previous article Leadership Models: An Overview ), ranging from transactional and transformational styles to adaptive and visionary ones. With such a broad palette to work with, a natural question follows: “how do I develop such styles among my executives? which methodology or mind set would prove the most accurate towards designing effective leadership development programmes?”. As such, we find ourselves moving from leadership models towards leadership development, from theory towards practice. Now, leadership development is an “old friend”, a well-known concept for researchers and practitioners alike (e.g. Day, 2000). However, its implementation still remains a largely problematic area. Studies (e.g. Ready & Conger, 2003) frequently report that while there is a great supply of leadership development courses and curriculums -which is great news, nonetheless- most such programmes do not produce results that stand the test of time nor do they contribute towards a substantial ROI for the firm. There is a lot to be said and argued on why do such programmes fail and what can we do to lift that costly misfortune. While participants and their organizations – that is the trainees and clients- hold a critical role in the equation, we posit that the answer/remedy can be found within the design methodology of leadership development programmes, as well.

Mostly organised around seminars, pure classroom workshops, a lecture, a book even, leadership training programmes are treated as a “one-time” effort, leaving the trainees with a “that was cool, but what do I do with it afterwards?” taste. Equally, when said trainees are later on, called to apply the skills learnt upon real-life organizational challenges, they find themselves once again in great need of guidance. Alas, the majority eventually reverts back to the old ways of doing things. So, what could prove a more appropriate methodology? Here is where theory once again comes in handy.

From theory to practice

We can extract two interesting key points that provide an answer to the aforesaid questions. First, we inspect closely the structure of contemporary organizations, since both leadership models and leaders themselves operate within these particular contexts. We find that work, structures, technology, processes and organizational life are all structured around teams and teamwork (Morgeson et al., 2010; Hills, 2007). Teams have proliferated constituting the building block of organizational success (e.g., Kozlowski et al., 1996; Martin & Bal, 2006) and much focus has been put towards identifying the golden formula to land high and optimal levels of team performance. In both theory and practice, high team performance appears to stem from several key characteristics (see previous articles The first (and toughest) Team Building question: is my Team really a Team? and High Performance Teams: A Team – Building Blueprint), one of which is appropriate leadership. High performing teams possess well defined goals, a collective mission and the motivation to stay behind that vision. Said goals, vision and motivation are formulated and supported through and through by the leader (Zaccaro et al., 2001). The latter connects team members and is responsible for defining team goals, structuring team experiences, facilitating communication and strengthening the unit towards a shared organizational mission. Therefore, leadership cannot be seen as an independent, stand-alone concept, existing in an organizational “vacuum” but rather as an integral part of any high performing team. Hence both designers of leadership development programmes as well as clients should view and treat any leadership course as being quintessentially and at its core a team development programme! Any skills the leader will gain are to be put in the service of the team, eventually.

An additional point in favour of this team-based leadership approach derives from a close inspection of the various leadership models currently running. As pointed out in our previous thesis (see article Leadership Models: An Overview ) there is a particular emergent trend in leadership theory and practice. Bass (2008) estimated that typical transactional leadership structures will give way to transformational ones. There is a growing pressing need for firms to strive, not for productivity per se anymore, but rather for innovation, flexibility and disruption (McCleskey, 2014). Contemporary dynamic markets need firms to function as systems in constant dialogue with their various stakeholders. Equally, leadership is and must be treated as a systemic concept. This is why there is an increased interest in follower-centred leadership approaches (Bligh, 2011), complexity theory leadership models (Uhl-Bien & Marion, 2011), adaptive leadership styles, all highlighting that the “leadership game” is won not at the level of the individual but rather at the level of the system. In the case of leaders, their immediate system is their team. What does this mean in practice? How to incorporate the leaders’ system (i.e. their team) within their training?

Relevancy: one size does not fit all

No matter which leadership style is targeted be it transformational, visionary, adaptive, or situational, when designing team-based development programmes the teams’ performance phases as well as on-the-job real-time challenges should dictate the process. Generic one-size-fits-all courses lack relevancy, that is they treat both teams and leaders as static entities, setting aside the reality that a team’s needs may change frequently, various work challenges might emerge and thus that every time different on-the-job situations will call for equally different situation specific skills and guidance on the leader’s part. When it comes team performance, literature suggests that teams operate in a series of episodic cycles shifting between a) transition and b) action phases (Marks et al., 2001). Each phase describes different priorities and needs for the team and thus calls for different leadership actions and functions.

  • The transition phase is a period of time, whereby teams do not focus on work task directly but rather on forming the team itself. Mainly, structuring the team, planning the team’s work, and putting a performance evaluation system in place. This phase can happen many times during a team’s life circle. For instance, it might take place after a project has been delivered and a new one is initiated, thus propelling team members to regather their resources and reconfigure. When managing teams operating in a transition phase, leaders needs to steer their skills towards a particular set of situational specific goals: landing the right mix of people in the team; structuring roles and responsibilities; forming the team’s mission and goals; setting standards of performance; making sure that everybody has the right tools and expertise to work; setting feedback and communication processes within the team.
  • The action phase is a period of time during which the team is focused on accomplishing its work goals (Marks et al., 2001). When managing teams in this performance phase, the leader needs to steer skills towards: solving task and relational problems within the team, acquiring resources for the team, connecting the team with the external environment (i.e. other teams, experts, top management, customers), encouraging the team to act autonomously. The latter can be seen as the overall end goal for leaders, that is to help their team become self-stirring units.

The key takeaways from the aforementioned logic are two. First, when developing leadership programmes the particular performance phase a team finds itself into shapes the skills its leader needs to be trained upon. Second, in order for our leaders to be developed as part of their system and in response to the needs of their system (i.e. their team), training needs to take place more or less on-the-job and while everyone is actually working. For instance, leadership skills such as networking and information sharing may be better developed and practiced when said leaders do need in real-time to look for, negotiate and acquire resources for their team.

Learning while doing

On-the-job training is not a new concept. Some of the most successful and widely used on-the-job methods are: Coaching and Mentoring, Job Rotation, Apprenticeship, Retraining. The main advantage of such methods is that trainees are introduced into the new skills they need to acquire, the rules and the work procedures very organically by adopting them while they work, during a normal working day. Essentially, theory becomes practice on the spot and vice versa. On-the-job training has proven particularly valuable for employees performing operative functions (e.g. technicians, surgeons), whereby new procedural knowledge and skills need to be mastered. A supplementary interesting point to be made here, is that so long as on-the-job environments and work scenarios are realistically replicated in the classroom e.g. through the use of augmented or virtual reality tools, the desirable new skills will be learnt as effectively as they would if participants were performing within their actual job contexts (e.g. Blumstein, 2019). Another point to be made is that such technology-supported training, frees “classical” on-the-job training methods from their major flaws, namely high probability of accidents, damages to expensive equipment, money losses and waste of valuable time.

Overall the leadership development methodology could be summarized as such; we focus on delivering team specific as well as situation specific programmes. We begin by properly diagnosing team X’s performance phase, hence the team’s needs. These needs set the stage as to which leadership skills we need to train X leader on. Afterwards, we focus on making the programme situation specific. The utilisation of blended training methods could help bridge traditional classroom training and on-the-job methods e.g. a classroom seminar followed by an on-the-job digital coaching, or a series of virtual reality scenarios practiced in the classroom and followed by weekly on-the-job mentoring circles.

As Bass (2008) predicted leadership theory and practice will continue to move beyond leader or person-centric tactics and towards a situation and system oriented path (Beer et al., 2016). Leadership development methodologies and trainers need to catch up with this trajectory and implement the ever growing reality that leaders are part of an interrelated system of stakeholders (teams, fellow leaders, resources etc.) operating within a firm, towards sustainability and growth.


Key takeaway: ‘The leader-team interplay’

When looking for effective leadership development services, focus on approaches that connect the leader with the team as well as training courses that incorporate the reality of the daily workflow.



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