Is Developing Leaders Really That Important?

Leadership effectiveness is a primary contributor to business performance. A study of 2,000 businesses worldwide, by Anderson and Adams, quoted in their book “Mastering Leadership,” strongly suggests if you improve leadership effectiveness, you have a 38% probability of improving business performance.

Another important study of a database of 250,000 surveys (James Zenger, 2009), found that those leaders who were rated, at or above the 80th percentile (compared to the norm base) on a reliable 360°assessment, will produce twice the results of those in the middle 60th percentile range.

So, if effective leadership is a 38% lever, contributing enormously to the organization’s overall performance, and the most influential leaders are outperforming those in the middle range, developing effective leadership clearly deserves the investment of time, energy, and money, especially in these times of increasing complexity.

However, effective leadership doesn’t just happen on its own. It requires effective approaches. When you consider the considerable amount that is already spent on Leadership Development in the UK every year, we would expect to see effective leadership improving dramatically. Most of us would agree that this is not the case. As the pace of change and increasing complexity continues to outpace the development of effective leaders, the world is facing a leadership crisis.

What Is and Isn’t Working in Leadership Development?

During my 21year career in the Royal Navy, followed by a 21year career as a leadership development specialist, I have experienced many different approaches to the development of effective leadership.

Those that fall short tend to be superficial and focused purely on developing a set of skills and behaviours. Just like the world we live in, we are complex, fallible human beings, and can’t operate from a cookie-cutter approach to leadership.

In the art of leadership, the artist’s instrument is the self. The mastery of the art of leadership comes with the mastery of the self. Ultimately, leadership development is the process of self-development.”
– Kouzes and Posner: The Leadership Challenge

Some programmes attempt to develop people in a bubble, focusing on individuals, while ignoring the power and influence of the collective leadership of the business, the culture, and the business plan. It is challenging enough for leaders to transfer and apply new thinking and behaviours without doing that in isolation of the context.
I have also walked away from opportunities to deliver Leadership Development programmes where they were going to be sponsored, but not owned, by the senior leadership team.

I don’t think I am alone in feeling frustrated and confused at times by the plethora of unintegrated and contradictory leadership theories, research, and frameworks. Perhaps you have found the same? Are you flipping between servant leadership and transformational leadership? Are you tying yourself in knots trying to become a perfect leader displaying all the traits in the latest list of “Top 10 Traits of the Most Effective Leaders”?

So, what is needed to grow leaders that are up to the challenges of our Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) world? Leaders, who can, not only survive but thrive in complexity and create working environments where everyone is encouraged and enabled to contribute their best?

Here’s my take on effective leadership.

Behaviours and Beliefs

Yes, we need to identify and develop those competencies that are most strongly correlated with effective leadership and business performance. At the same time, we need to raise our consciousness to identify the beliefs and assumptions which either enable or limit our leadership effectiveness and business performance.

How many training courses have you been on, that show you exactly what to do, in order to, for example, think more strategically, coach and mentor others, and network more effectively? And how much of that are you still consistently doing today? If you aren’t, it’s highly likely that you have thoughts or beliefs around those topics that are getting in the way.

Unhelpful thoughts could include:

  • I don’t believe it’s a good use of my time to try and think beyond my quarterly commitments, or, it’s a luxury I can’t afford.
  • Coaching takes far too much time and/or my direct reports shouldn’t need “hand-holding.”
  • Networking is excruciating, I’m not too fond of small talk, or I don’t do politics.

Or on a deeper level, unacknowledged beliefs such as:

  • I can stay safe by supporting others.
  • Loyalty and harmony protect me from disapproval.
  • I am not good enough.
  • I am valuable because of my superior capability.
  • Failure of any kind is unacceptable or could lead to losing my job.

There has to be a focus on both developing the competencies of effective leadership and the conscious practice of leadership. It must entail developing self-awareness to know what behaviours, beliefs, and assumptions are supporting your leadership effectiveness and the behaviours, beliefs, and assumptions that may hinder or derail you now, or in the future.

A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.


Context is a critical element of effective leadership. A highly successful leader in one situation, won’t necessarily perform well in another. This is why development programmes that assume a one size fits all approach will not succeed. It’s far more effective to ascertain early on, what the specific purpose of the programme is. When you are clear on the leadership capabilities needed to support the business objective, then you can identify a small number of competencies that are essential for success.

A Whole-System Approach

Off-site programmes away from the demands of the day job are very attractive. They give participants the opportunity to collectively step back, reflect, think differently, and practice new behaviours and approaches in the relative safety of the group. However, learners often struggle to transfer even the most potent off-site learning and insights into changed behaviour back in the workplace.

I aim to tie leadership development to real-world business initiatives that are important to the business and increase learning. I’ve had success when the participant group were given a comprehensive brief to identify, make the business case for, and implement, initiatives that would make money or save money for the business. I have also had success when the Senior Leadership Team has identified initiatives straight off their business plan and allocated them to groups of learners. On every occasion, the learners presented back their results and their learning.

Feedback and Accountability

Too often, evaluation of a Leadership Programme starts and ends with participant feedback. Besides not giving any indication of the value of the programme, it influences trainers to focus on pleasing and supporting participants to the detriment of challenging and stretching them.

A better way is to conduct 360° assessments before the programme starts and again 12 to 24 months after the programme. Personal and professional development has been shown to continue over a much longer period than we might expect. Furthermore, accountability teams should give regular feedback throughout, to individual leaders relating to their specific development plan, outlining what behaviours they aim to stop doing and start doing.
The business impact of the programme also needs to be measured, and it is easier to do when training is tied to the on the job projects.

Results and Relationships

There needs to be a balance between driving for results and building an environment of trust, safety, and collaboration. James Zenger surveyed over 60,000 employees to see which leadership characteristics made leaders “great” in the eyes of their employees.

Two of the characteristics were “results-focus” and “people-focused,” and he found the following:

  • Results-oriented leaders are rated as great 14% of the time.
  • People-oriented leaders are rated as great 12% of the time.
  • Leaders who are strong in both orientations are rated as great 72% of the time.

So, having a focus on results or relationships are poor predictors of effective leadership on their own. It’s the combination of the two that makes leaders great.

In Summary

Effective leadership has never been more critical to keep up with the demands of this VUCA world. To transform leadership, we need to change ourselves as leaders. We need to be focusing on upgrading our internal operating systems and become the courageous, caring, adaptable, authentic, and conscious leaders that our environment needs.

If you’d like to know more about The Universal Model of Leadership, please do get in touch. You can phone me on 07971793558. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.

Julie Kay

Julie Kay is the founder of JK Leadership Development Ltd. She is a Professional Certified Coach (ICF) and an Ashridge Accredited Executive Coach (Ashridge/Hult International Business School). She works with fast-growing medium-sized businesses often in STEM-related industries. She particularly enjoys supporting technical and operational experts to increase their self-awareness, achieve results, and build strong trusting relationships with those around them.