Businesses and business schools have joint responsibility for development

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Leadership now, not just for the future, requires a wholesale shift in our mental models

The fourth industrial revolution is a new phase of economic development where technology blurs the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological worlds. This will inevitably change the way businesses work, particularly around patterns of collaboration. So how will we train the next generation of leaders? And will the leadership development industry be able to deliver what’s needed?

In recent years business schools – the core provider of leadership development – have been accused by critics, such as Michael Jacobs and Henry Mintzberg, that no direct link has been shown between leadership education and business success. They claim that business schools are not providing effective solutions because they don’t reflect the dynamic complexities facing businesses today.

But businesses and business schools have a joint responsibility to address the challenges. It’s only by working in partnership that providers can understand and deliver what business needs. Leadership now, not just for the future, requires a wholesale shift in our mental models; a step-change in collaborative engagement.

It’s unlikely that any single player in an industry will possess all the capacities needed in this new world (multiple technology expertise, big data analytics, and cloud services to name but a few). That’s where collaboration and partnership come in. Yet too often organisations pay lip service to this way of working.

Ideally solutions will emerge from industry consortia; each partner contributing a fragment of the required assets. Businesses need new ways of working internally and externally with the ecosystems of collaborating partners. Leaders will play a critical role in managing these relationships in addition to the traditional leadership skill mix of strategy setting, customer relationship management, employee engagement and delivering results.

We have identified the key features of leadership development that help foster real partnerships. We found that while different stakeholder communities have unique concerns, constraints and responsibilities, real partnership is possible. The importance of contracting with the different stakeholder groups can’t be overstated. Good old-fashioned honesty is essential. Crucially, though, the concept must evolve more as collaboration than service delivery.

The content of leadership development needs to be user-driven and rooted in the learner’s own experience and context. It is the opportunity to reflect, review and reappraise those experiences that produces the most sustained learning.

Organisations must trust the business school to allow this to happen by holding ‘white space’ for reflection in a programme, rather than offering the much-vaunted ‘toolkit’ as content. Little effective leadership development can be reduced down to a set of mnemonics, simple frameworks and gimmicky exercises. A toolkit is helpful, but without commitment to new mindsets and ways of working it’s useless.

We find this kind of learning is best delivered through facilitated experiences and emotionally charged challenges, not the transmission of evidence-based received wisdom by ‘gurus’ or case studies.

Businesses also need to move to a model of lifelong learning. They must ensure they are prepared to allow leaders’ learning to move into the workplace. Without supported follow-through delegates are limited in their ability to implement their learning, which creates frustration and, at best, a return to the status quo.

Effective leadership development in the future will focus on business schools and organisations giving leaders the psychological bandwidth to welcome the disruption of existing systems. Business schools, as external suppliers, can’t do this alone. But in a dynamic partnership with their clients we might be able to help meet the provocations and demands of the fourth industrial age.

Patricia Hind is director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and a visiting fellow at Stellenbosch University, Cape Town. Viki Holton is senior research fellow at Ashridge Executive Education

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