Innovation in Leadership Development
  • Innovation

Innovation in Leadership Development

How are organizations shifting their leadership development practice to address 21st century challenges

Wednesday 06 January 2016

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Our understanding of the nature of leadership is running way ahead of our ability to develop it. Classroom training is a necessary but insufficient condition for leadership development to take place. Our only hope of matching the supply of leadership to the enormous demand is to overturn existing preconceptions and practices. These include the notions that:

  • The purpose of leadership development is to build discrete competencies – and not to nurture minds capable of embracing complexity and interconnectedness
  • Leadership development is the sole property of the training department – rather than (for example) organization effectiveness practitioners or job designers
  • Leadership development must be confined to talent pools – instead of being designed into workplaces and teams
  • The core skill of a leadership developer is instructional design – as opposed to the ability to design actions, experiences and conversation

In September 2015 we published a 20 page long research study called ‘Innovation in Leadership Development’ (see full report: which carried the following proposition: that the prevailing philosophy and practice of leadership development is failing to develop either the quantity or quality of leadership required by our institutions.

Our main motivation to carry this research was to understand how businesses and HR leaders were creatively transforming leaders and organizations: What are the dominant assumptions about how leadership is developed? Where has practice kept up with our understanding of how people learn? Who is pushing the perimeters and introducing new ways of developing people? Where has leadership development added demonstrable value? We also wanted to explore the philosophies of learning and drivers of excellence, and why these are so difficult to change. 

We talked to 17 business and HR leaders who we believed had something to offer to the debate. The leaders who took part in our interviews worked for organizations across industries (Non-profit, Medical Devices, Insurance, Advertising, Mining & Metals, Food and Beverage, Packaging and Container, Fast Food, Banking, Public Safety), geographies (US, South America, Europe and Asia) and of different sizes (ranging from 5,000 to 180,000 employees)


Our conversations took us in many different directions: from what we would consider very innovative practices (e.g. distributing power to followers and undertaking a systemic approach in fostering performance management, recruitment and selection, organization design, as well as development and growth) to contexts where Leadership Development is at a standstill as a result of dubious commitment from the top on the value and importance of development which created a sense of fear and a lack of stability in the system.

In between we came across some inspiring stories of people who are really passionate about fostering learning and growth in their institutions, and are rethinking how they develop tomorrow’s leaders with a real desire to challenge orthodoxies and push boundaries of traditional approaches.

In these organizations, leadership development fulfils a number of roles:

1) It is used to address ‘live’ business challenges; 2) It is designed to drive corporate transformation; 3) It often involves customers, partners, and other stakeholders in the interventions; 4) It’s delivered by senior leaders from within the business; 5) Its enabled by discovery visits to extraordinary places outside of ordinary work contexts.

Below we explore in more details the top five most innovative approaches to leadership development that we came across through our research:

Innovative approach 1: Promoting Natural (not Positional) Leadership: leaders stand or fall by their ability to engage followers

In this case the company is well-known for rejecting traditional organization charts and hierarchies in favour of a highly networked, team-based model designed to unleash entrepreneurialism and creativity.  

There are two pivotal roles in the system: leader and sponsor. The functional leader is accountable for building a team of associates, setting a direction and inspiring the team to deliver what they term ‘commitments’. Leaders may be appointed to run teams but are just as likely to emerge because they have special knowledge pertinent to specific opportunities or because of the strength of their leadership. 

The company promotes natural not positional leadership, and the term ‘manager’ is not used. Leaders must explain their decisions not simply announce them.  Leaders are hired by associates and they can also be removed by them. This is a consequence of natural leadership. Leaders cannot rely on command-and-control, withholding information, or monopolising decision-making. Facilitation, shared risk-taking, and truth-telling are the leadership behaviours that count. 

The sponsor, on the other hand, is responsible for the associate’s personal and professional, psychological and intellectual growth. Sponsors become recognised in the company for their ability to grow associates. Every associate has a sponsor and it is the associate’s responsibility to seek out a sponsor who they believe will maximise their development within the company. Here again power in the system lies with the follower. The underlying philosophy of their system is, ‘we respect the individual’.

From the company’s perspective, the role of the sponsor is to grow the contribution of every associate. The sponsor is responsible for the associate’s career and cannot do anything detrimental to them. To be effective the sponsor must know everything about the person they are growing: strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and potential.

The impact of these pivotal roles on behaviour and development is that emotional intelligence infects the whole system of interpersonal relationships.  Sponsors have a huge influence on individuals and their futures, but only by permission.  Sponsors mature psychologically as a result of the relationship and their responsibility.  And because sponsors are also leaders there is a virtuous circle of mutually reinforcing behaviour. Trusting relationships based on the “growth of the other” are at the heart of the organization’s culture.

The company points to many benefits of this system including consistently low levels of absenteeism and associate turnover. Of particular interest is the idea that the presence of systemic trust increases organizational acuity and responsiveness.  Associates feel empowered to speak their minds that act as an early warning system to detect threats or opportunities in the environment.

Innovative approach 2: Discovery Learning: renewing perspectives through immersion in another world and creating emotional reactions

Discovery learning is underpinned by the principle that, to develop and change, an individual needs to be taken out of their comfort zone where their thinking is shaken up and their values questioned. In seeking to understand this other world, individuals have the opportunity to see themselves and their work in a new light.

These were the hopes and expectation of the CEO of this global organization. Together with the global head of L&D and an external expert in management innovation, they wanted to create an emotional and thought provoking development experience that wasn’t business as usual. This included meeting people and organizations who the senior executives (members of the top 150 pool) wouldn’t normally meet in their daily work such as social entrepreneurs, the owner of a coffee shop, a person running a network of prostitutes, former criminals, etc. These encounters were designed to help executives reframe their individual ‘sense of purpose’.

One of the modules took participants to India where they visited the neonatal service of a hospital and met passionate employees (doctors, nurses, administration staff) working there with a strong motivation to save lives and help new-born babies who needed intensive medical attention. This sense of purpose had a drastic impact on the executives and upon returning to work, one of these executives replaced pictures of food in his office with pictures of babies and their mothers. It was a simple action to remind him that his purpose for working in the organization was not to sell baby products... “We are here for the babies and the mums”.

Key indicators of the success of this approach included behaviour shifts where the culture was seen to be much more entrepreneurial, innovative and less introspective than in the past. Participants also reported a greater sense of purpose and empowerment as a result of taking part in the program. Furthermore numerous organizational initiatives were launched as a result of this learning experience and talent retention has improved drastically (64 executives have been promoted since their participation in the program of which 4 have been appointed to the ExCo itself).

Innovative approach 3: Taking a Vertical Leadership Development Approach – broadening one’s mind-set

In 2004 this CEO said the company needed to transform on a global scale. Since then the global head of learning and development has been on a journey to investigate what global transformation means and how it differs from leading change. Based on the understanding that leaders of organizations today operate in an unpredictable environment, this senior leader and his team have been encouraging a shift from horizontal development towards vertical development: 

  • Horizontal development is the development of new skills, abilities, and behaviours. Horizontal development is most useful when problems are clearly defined and there are known techniques for solving them.
  • Vertical development, in contrast, refers to the ‘stages’ that people progress through as they ‘make sense’ of their world in more complex and inclusive ways. At each higher level of development, their minds grow ‘bigger’.

In metaphorical terms, horizontal development is like pouring water into an empty glass. The vessel fills up with new content (you learn more leadership techniques). But vertical development aims to expand the glass itself. This allows the manager’s mind to grow bigger.

As a result of this, the senior leadership has asked the ‘top 150 executives’ to evaluate their organization’s paradigms and how these need to be reframed, re-contextualised and transformed to enable the rest of the organization to think and work towards their strategy of transformation: “How are these executives able to understand how they work within the context as well as shift the context? How do they question, reframe and transform the way the organization works?”

A 2-day senior executive workshop was internally designed around specific business challenges like innovation or customer experience. The first day focused on ‘transformational leadership’ (i.e. vertical development) and the second day was composed of a learning journey, whereby the executives visited a client of their organization. Thanks to the work achieved on day one, when participants visited their client, they were able to approach the experience with a broader contextual perspective.

The emphasis of this intervention rests on the pre-work as well as the challenging practices throughout the day where participants were encouraged to open their mind-sets and think about their work challenges from a new perspective. 

Prior to the workshop, participants received some thought-provoking articles and were asked to watch a video created for the 40th anniversary of the retail company, which they were to visit on the second day of their workshop (this organization was chosen for their Net Promoter Score as they ranked high above average). As part of their pre-work, participants were also asked to visit one of the retail stores and speak with an employee as well as the store manager with the purpose of raising awareness and understanding about their client organization’s business challenges.

Innovative approach 4: Focusing on a Shared Purpose - between leadership and the workforce

A combination of rapid changes in the industry, reduced loyalty, increased attrition, high year-on-year staff turnover, as well as a reliance on buying talent (vs. building talent), has propelled this organization to find new ways to develop individuals across the organization.

The chairman, with the support of the company’s CEO, defined as “an amazing leader driven by an utter conviction in talent where inspiration is the only way to drive people”, are the two biggest sponsors to leadership development. In this organization, the word ‘leadership’ is not used so much, and is instead replaced by terms like ‘inspirational players’, ‘instigators’ and ‘shapers’.

Two leadership development initiatives stood out against their other human capital activities. The first one – ‘CEO days’ – was launched by the CEO in 2011. Here, eight high performers are invited to the CEO’s home where they work together for two consecutive days on a variety of development themes including mental toughness, resiliency, peak performance, personal purpose and how those had linked with the ’organization’s purpose. These high potential executives also explore how they fit in with the plans of the organization.

The second leadership development initiative – ‘Inspiring loyalty beyond reason’– is a two day initiative aimed at “Transforming the brand of the organization into a movement”. Over 48 hours eighty participants work with two facilitators on three briefings. Target participants were a cross mix of individuals across all levels (i.e. chief executives, managers as well as younger, more junior employees) and senior client stakeholders. Clients are also invited to prepare some live business challenges so that together with the participants, they would work together, creatively, with the objective of implementing the ideas they had co-created

Innovative approach 5: Fast Track Leadership Program: throwing future leaders into the trenches

Despite being a multinational company operating across 120 countries, this organization is described by its employees as a ‘family’ and a ‘family business’. Toxic leaders regarded as aggressive, obnoxious and focused only on results, do not tend to survive very long in this organization.

High potential individuals, identified as future leaders, were ‘thrown into the trenches’ and put through a year-long fast track leadership development program. During this period they learnt the trade by working hand-in-hand with, and developing an understanding of, their organization from entry level.

Described as an ‘acid test’ or ‘culture fit test’, every high potential aspiring to be a senior executive in the organization had to undergo the program.

“It gives the management a deep empathy for the crew (as they sit in their shoes); a credibility with business, as well as a deep respect for the science of their work” says the HRD with whom we spoke.

The company has a very proud culture where a number of Country Managing Directors have been developed internally from this school. In fact, we were told “some of the best MDs in the company come from this program”.


We are excited by our findings that highlight the contrasting approaches taken by the organizations we have interviewed. Yet, at the same time, we are also disappointed to have found a strong and enduring attachment to philosophies and practices better suited to leadership development in the old not the new world. On a spectrum of traditionalism to innovation, it seems that many of us in the Leadership Development field are playing safe or finding it difficult to translate passion and belief into reality. Whilst passion and commitment are essential, they must be coupled with a desire to learn and try new approaches, where risks and potential payoffs are both high.

Our experience and findings suggests five key principles for fostering innovation in Leadership Development:

  1. Inspiring CEO and leadership team who believe in the importance of personal (human) growth: In doing so, the CEO needs to drive the learning agenda and be passionate about people development
  2. Appetite for challenging orthodoxies and the status quo: This offers a clear sense that breakthrough can only come with experimentation, some risk-taking and a mind-set shift where ‘what got us here won’t necessary get us there’
  3. Development happens at work as well as in a workshop: People do not develop alone or just by attending a program. The role of leaders and managers is pivotal in making learning at work a reality
  4. Leadership Development design must be relevant to the context and culture of the participants: The business case for leadership development must add value for the learner in helping them become more effective as a leader in their own environment
  5. Accountability and trust is on the learner: The organization can create the right conditions for learning, for inspiration and ideas to emerge, but the onus of learning must lie within the individual and their orientation to learn

We feel that Innovation in leadership development should start with an understanding of how individuals change and behave.  We believe the willingness of individuals to change is dependent on what they trust (about themselves, their colleagues, the situation, etc.) and the sentiments they attach to that credence. We, as consultants, coaches and facilitators, can no longer depend on offering what we know as the absolute answer to our clients’ needs. Instead, we must be confident in supporting our client’s through the ‘unknown’ territories in which they operate, and be assured in our abilities to help them generate ideas and solutions, which are specific to the context that they know best.

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