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The New Edge of Leadership Development

so the emphasis on the quality of a leader’s character will come back into fashion. It is not access to information, it is what you do with information that will make the difference in the future. So future leaders will need turbo-

by Lucy Ball and Eve Poole


more quickly than it does now,

charged Google-brains, able to surf extraordinary amounts of

n this article on the future

you’ll find that what we say is rocket

data – management information,

of leadership development,

science. In fact, it probably chimes

news, trends -– and convert it to

Eve Poole and Lucy Ball ask

with your existing experience of what

practical wisdom and decisions in

“What would genuinely leading-

really does and doesn’t work. But

the blink of an eye. Given the pace

edge leadership development

we hope that this will give you the

of change, the ability to stand back

look like?” What if we designed

evidence base to back your hunches

and make simple sense of complexity

development that took into

to help you develop a really fit-for-

whilst holding one’s nerve will be

account the best predictions

purpose approach.

paramount. Like the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass,

about the future of leadership and everything we now know from neuroscience about how leaders learn? What if we ditched the dogma and started with the truth about modern leadership, and

The Future of Leadership


leaders will be running to stay in the same place and sprinting to lead the

ur starting point is the

field. They won’t be able to sustain

future of leadership itself.

this without an Olympic Gold ability

As the complexity theorist

to stay fit and healthy, mentally

Ralph Stacey says, ‘the future is

and physically, and extraordinary

to development? What if in just

unknowable…any widely held vision

commitment to health and wellbeing,

one article we could provide time-

of the future must therefore be a

both for themselves and for those

starved executives with all the

delusion.’ That said, we see some

around them. The ability to slow

information they needed to define

clear themes emerging. Let’s imagine

down time in the midst of an action

their approach to next generation

the world for leaders in 2030.

sequence – martial-arts film style –

about what works when it comes

might also come in handy.

leadership development? First, wisdom and resilience. While in writing this article we

By 2030, information will be

Second, charm and global presence.

have gone back to first principles

even cheaper and quicker, but

While the cult of the charismatic

as well as looking at the very

wisdom will be harder to come by.

leader may currently be out of

latest research, we don’t expect

Even experience will date much

vogue, the war for talent will mean

Drunk in charge? The Romans had a term for it: mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind in a healthy body. We have noticed that leaders are so busy tackling the intellectual challenges of their roles that many of them have neglected their ability to cope with the physical challenges of their roles. For example, at Ashridge we carried out a study about executive sleep habits. Given that sleep is vital not only for the physical repair of the body but also for the formation and consolidation of memory, poor sleep habits dramatically erode performance and the quality of decision-making over time. For instance, the Ashridge study found that managers spend fewer than seven hours asleep at night, and that this decreases with job seniority. This becomes an alarming statistic when you match this up with a long-day, no-lunch culture. Seventeen hours of sustained wakefulness has been shown to result in changes in behaviour equivalent to drinking two glasses of wine. In the UK such people would not be allowed to drive or operate machinery. So if you are not sleeping well, Ashridge’s sleep expert Dr Vicki Culpin has this advice for you. Try to avoid alcohol, caffeine, heavy, spicy or sugary foods 4-6 hours before bedtime, and exercise regularly but not directly before you go to sleep. Keep your bedroom well ventilated, temperate, dark and quiet. Reserve it for sleeping, and try a light snack like a banana or warm milk before turning in. And our own favourite piece of advice about insomnia: just try to keep your eyes open. 1

that leaders in 2030 will need

all levels in an organisation or within

risk a bad happy sheet in favour of

to be highly charismatic, to

and through a system is the future.

a difficult conversation. All of this,

attract flighty global talent

The power of a single, authentic,

however, lacks teeth if there is no

of the Generation Y variety.

compelling voice with a clear

motivation to lead.

Evidence suggests that the

vision is not to be underestimated

new followers are loyal to their

but where and when that voice

personal vocation and only to

rises up is no longer a question of

2 Leadership starts with a choice

an organisation while its goals

position or grade or title. That a

The act of leading means that

align with their own. This is

positional or ‘official’ leader’s job is

the leader has already taken the

easier for leaders in values or

increasingly to facilitate leadership

initiative and stepped out, such that

mission-based organisations

at all levels is beyond doubt – agility,

there is someone to follow, going

than for those leaders who

innovation, emergent strategy all

somewhere. Sometimes, we hear

must make a profit motive

seem impossible without this. The

leaders describe this less as a choice

emotionally engaging. As more

notion that leadership development

and more as a calling or a moment of

industries migrate up the

professionals are no longer there

inspiration – the idea found me not

value curve and more work

to develop individual leaders but to

the other way round. However that

is automated, technical skills

support systems in which leadership

moment occurs, leadership starts as

will be less distinctive than

emerges is a huge shift and very

mental activity, the act of deciding to

beautiful manners and skilful


do something, before it becomes an

conversation, at ease in a variety

interpersonal one in implementation.

of global settings and through

While leadership development

diverse media. Leaders already need to be good at reading cultures locally and globally, and adjusting their style, messages and business models to suit. As the world shrinks, so future leaders need to get extremely

The Future of Leadership development


has increasingly focused on the primary interpersonal skillset, the prior mental skillset has tended

iven this view of the future,

to be covered by ‘strategy’ and not

and our past experience,

much else. The future of leadership

we hold a number of tenets

suggests that a stronger link needs to

about leadership development.

be forged between business strategy

comfortable with virtual tools.

– where are we going? and personal

While regulation and legislation

mission – where am I going?

may standardise globally, local

1 Relating is still the primary skillset

operating conditions will still

You are not leading if no one is

vary enormously as communities

following you. The interpersonal

get more particular in the face of

skills that leaders need to attract

growing global homogenisation.

and retain followers and to develop

Future leaders will have to

leadership in others remains

be manifestly better global

primary. And our view of the future

citizens and at ease with 24/7

suggests that authentic charm and

transparency. Data will be better,

flexibility in interpersonal style as

so their performance will be more

well as a belief in the power and

exactly managed, communicated

potential of others are key to this.

and rewarded/punished.

We advocate live, direct and honest

Character and the virtues will be

feedback within teams as the purest

of more importance than current

route to this self-awareness. Does a

transaction-based analysis,

leader encourage, embolden, inspire

tested by the use of story on the

peers, stakeholders and followers?

international, socially networked

Let the answer to this come from the


horse’s mouth. The art and practice of feedback must be an essential part

Third, leadership from in

of any development intervention. In

front, behind and throughout.

a group development setting such

We agree with the growing

as a programme, every participant

consensus that the era of the

needs to be able to hold the mirror

‘great man’ leader is over and

up in a timely way to their peers, and

that leadership as a process at

facilitators must feel safe enough to

3 Leaders must be extraordinary learners Following in the footsteps of Phil Hodgson, Ralph Stacey and others, we believe that leaders can only future-proof themselves by becoming extraordinary learners. The world is changing so quickly and is so complex that only those leaders with brilliant mental agility will be able to navigate the unknown without feeling panicky or physically exhausted by constant newness. And mental agility needs to be firmly supported by emotional stability, physical stamina and the self-confidence to be resourceful in new situations. Leadership development needs to shift its focus upstream, from providing tools that may become quickly outmoded to helping leaders learn to feel confident about inventing new tools in new situations. The more we 2

teach business school style tools and

resources firmly with the learner. We

2 Going through the emotions

models, the more we communicate

love to hear how those inspirational

Most leadership development

our lack of confidence in the

leaders outside of corporations

seems to assume that leadership

ingenuity of tomorrow’s leaders and

who have never had a line manager

is a very rational activity. Learning takes placed in

perpetuate old paradigms. Gripping relevance

civilised surroundings, with the

So what do leading companies do

in a similar state of physiological

that’s gripping? High potentials at

calm when they need to access

M&G apply strategy tools to a real

their learning at work. But what

corporate issue, sponsored by the

we know is that leadership is

e can’t accurately predict

Board, so that the answers they

often stressful, and human bodies

the future of leadership

come up with really matter. New

behave differently under stress.

but we do have plenty of

Ambassadors in the UK Foreign

While the field is moving so fast

data that we can draw upon to answer

and Commonwealth Office end their

that things might have changed

the question: What are the conditions

development programme by prac-

by the time you read this, the

under which leaders best learn?

tising the introductory speech they

latest research suggests that

intend to make when they arrive at

there are stages in this process,

post. Senior Post Office executives

as the body moves from calm,

1 Gripping relevance

learn about customer service by

through challenge, to threat. In the

The first thing we need to get clear

working on the counter, supervised

challenge state the body optimises

about learning is why leaders learn.

by junior staff. Call centre managers

to meet the danger (‘good stress’),

In terms of evolutionary biology, it

at Sky learn about developing their

while in the threat state the body

is logical to assume that learning

people for better customer service

gets ready for exit (‘bad stress’),

and the memory of it enhances our

just in time to lead high energy

and cognitive functioning is

ability to survive and thrive. So it’s

events for frontline staff. PepsiCo

sacrificed in favour of resources for

also logical to suppose that we will

High Potentials events are heavily

retreat. The research suggests that

always find it easier to learn and

sponsored by and attended by the

the trigger moving a person from

remember things that we know

President and senior VPs – nothing

challenge to threat seems to be the

will be useful to us in future. In

seems more relevant to the ambi-

extent to which they feel resourced

school, we can learn lists of boring

tious leader than how they are seen

to cope. This is exciting for two

dates and formula because doing

in the eyes of the top banana. More

reasons. First, because it is crucial

so helps us to ace our exams, even

and more organisations are choos-

for our survival, our brains work

if we forget them all afterwards.

ing the critical moment of Leadership

best while we are in a challenge

As adults, and as busy leaders in

Transition to use a development

state. Second, ‘feeling resourced’

particular, it is likely that anything

intervention so that participants are

is a psychological phenomenon, so

that does not appear relevant or

highly sensitive to what they need

we might be able to fool ourselves

useful is immediately filtered out, in

to learn to be successful in their next

into feeling more resourced by

favour of things whose immediate

post. Pre-qualifying participants for a

bolstering confidence, through

application seems evident. We see

programme is useful here – no more

simulation and practice, and by

this more and more in practice,

should leaders be able to bumble

encouraging an optimistic frame.

as participants on leadership

into leadership development without

And provided we make time for

programmes challenge relevance

the fire in the belly they need to pay

recovery, we should be able to

before being willing to engage.


enter the challenge state and

Tools need to know their place as useful transitional objects, not golden bullets.

How do Leaders really learn?


assumption that the learner will be

This has major implications for

increasingly extend our ability to

leadership development: what

operate there over time. So we do

would a leadership development

leaders a disservice if leadership

programme look like that

development programmes stay

seemed grippingly relevant to a

or a learning and development

too calm and rational. It’s about

leader’s future flourishing? How

department, construct their own mix

‘going through the emotions’

might leadership development

of developmental experiences and

of genuine challenge in a

professionals design motivation in?

developmental relationships. If your

developmental setting, so that

We are fascinated by the notion of

leaders could learn only by choosing

leaders have the chance to develop

self-directed leadership development

who to spend their time with over the

the muscle memory they need

that puts the ownership and

next year, who would they choose?

to face real life as a leader. At 3

Ashridge, we have tried to do this by developing The Leadership

The 3Rs

the more this is reinforced, the

Experience, which takes leaders

Here are Eve’s 3Rs for adult

stronger the memory becomes. And

through a series of critical

learning: receptiveness, retention

while many of us in leadership

incidents so that when they

and retrieval. First, receptiveness.

development think that it is our

encounter them for real, they seem

We know that learning and

job to help learners by making

familiar, and the leader knows

memory are intertwined, and a

concepts easy for participants to

that they are resourced to cope

memory cannot be formed unless

grasp, we may need to be less

with them. At Ideas Unlimited our

the person involved is paying

kind in future, as the learning

programmes have included many

attention in the first place. Jet

needs to be chewed not swallowed

‘live challenges’ that ask leaders to

lag, introvert versus extravert

whole if it is to be retained. For

perform real tasks for real people,

energy, bio-rhythms, alcohol, poor

this reason dissent, argument,

with real consequences. These

sleep habits conspire to wear

questioning and struggling are

may be work based challenges

people out. Use of walk-and-talks,

positive signs. Finally, retrieval, or

such as designing and delivering

frequent breaks, water, changes

the ability for a participant to use

engagement events for staff who

in approach, use of the gym,

their learning when they need it.

are being bussed in the next day

and many other small practices

This is a mixture of skill and will. If

or community-based challenges

can help maintain wakefulness

they do not feel confident that they

such as cleaning up a flood-

so that leaders are in a position

can apply the learning skilfully,

damaged community in Prague

to learn. Next, retention. For a

they won’t risk it, so they need to

or bringing solar panels to the

memory to transfer from short to

do all of their risky practising while


long-term, it needs to be made

they are in a safe and supervised

meaningful. Because we already

environment with the opportunity

have established neural pathways

for feedback and repetition. Will-

in our brains, the quickest way

power is rather complex, but

3 Brain surgery

to cement a memory is to link

building in discussion about hopes,

Mark Twain said that “a habit

it to an existing one. Helping

fears, barriers and threats helps

cannot be tossed out the window; it

participants to take the time to

stiffen resolve to apply learning, as

must be coaxed down the stairs a

make connections creates the

does coaching, action-learning and

step at a time.” But we’re too busy

necessary synaptic firing, and

peer support.

to spend time changing minds in the hope that they change habits

difficult. Why? Because our brain

generated insight on the part of a

further down the line, we want to

is brilliant at “routinising” our

learner in an ‘experience and coach’

change your habits now, and your

behaviour and resists disruption to

style can cause a chemical change

mind can catch up with you later.

hard-wired behavioural habits. The

in the brain, opening up new neural

But we know from neuroscience

‘teach and persuade’ style of training,

pathways, which, if supported by

that habit change is a physiological

as any parent knows, tends to lead to

sustained attention, can eventually

process in the brain which is

resistance. On the other hand, self-

become new habits. This is not new research, but it does seem worth repeating until the organisational world finally gets it. There are two key implications for leadership development here. One is that development experiences should be absolutely that: experiences. Another is that a coaching style is most likely to be successful to support the introduction of new habits, particularly supported by a level of coaching support that helps sustain these freshly formed and tender new neural pathways back in the workplace so that they are not beaten into retreat by business as usual. 4

Aspects of an emotionally engaging development experience Innovation Something that seems new compared with previous

The perfect leadership development interventions


t the beginning of this piece

It seems to us that the era

we set ourselves an exam

of Executive Development is

question. We asked “What

giving way to the era of Applied

would genuinely leading-edge

Leadership Development. We favour

heightens emotional engagement

leadership development look

interventions that:

and attention.

like?” Here are our criteria for

development experiences,

worldclass design.


organisation’s context

Purpose Compelling reasons to engage and join in that link organisational and personal values and goals. Setting Environments that cause the professional mask to drop away but are also closely linked to the learning objectives. Ideas Unlimited development Ideas Unlimitedhave development programmes taken place:

R Does it embolden leaders to choose leadership?


R Does it build learning muscles and stamina?


R Is it grippingly relevant?

In art galleries and shipyards InInart galleries and nightclubs and shipyards theme parks InRound nightclubs and theme parks the campfire in the

R Does it go through the emotions

On the deck of a ship and on the beach beach In university gymnasiums and Inkids’ university gymnasiums and playgrounds kids p’laygrounds In churches and community

Incentres churches and community centres In holiday cottages, ramblers’

Inhostels holidayand cottages, retreatramblers centres hostels retreator centres On theand shopfloor in marquees. On the shopfloor or in marquees. Real Challenge Appropriately difficult and stressful challenges. Real Support Personal coaching and support on tap. Honest, Edgy Conversation Authentic, accomplished development professionals who are willing to engage in live and often difficult conversations with learners.

– is it a genuine life experience moving through appropriate phases of calm, challenge and stress?

R Is it supportive of real habit change back in the real world?

Are linked strongly to live and real work

Involve up close and personal coaching by psychologically

R Does it build ‘flexible

programmes have taken place

Round the campfire in the African African Bush Bush On the deck of a ship and on the

Are tailor made for an

aware professionals •

Build relational skills though practice and feedback

Build confidence, resourcefulness and self belief

Pay attention to and coach the performance of teams and systems not just individuals.

Implications of our criteria for organisations and development professionals No article can answer all questions and cover all possibilities and in many ways the hours we have spent writing, researching and talking about this subject has created more

Applied Leadership Development We are starting to design our programmes according to these

questions. Some that we are left with are as follows: •

be brave enough to start with a

criteria with some willing clients.

blank sheet of paper and design

And we are finding relationships

their leadership development

between them. Each criterion

interventions for genuine

builds on the others. Highlighting

behaviour change in their own

a leader’s choice to lead connects to their motivation both to lead and to learn. A genuine emotion-engaging

context? •

– body, mind, soul, family,

the mini physiological explosions in

values, dreams as opposed to

the brain needed to kick start habit

staying in the safer territory of

change. Direct feedback about how

skills, competencies and career

a leader relates to others in the genuine shifts in interpersonal behaviour as the impact on others is no longer ignorable.

How willing are we to address the integrated person at work

experience is more likely to lead to

moment is more likely to motivate

How many organisations will

ladders? •

How does leadership development become genuinely more boundary-less both within organisations and across


organisations? •

of a programme?

How far can organisations really

Are leadership development

take self-directed leadership

professionals brave enough to


go with their hunches, challenge

How creative can we be about

convention, and design the new

learning on real work – not

world of leadership development

just on projects half-heartedly

with gusto?

created by the CEO for the sake

We welcome your thoughts:

World class design What

Eve Poole is an Associate of Ashridge Business School, following earlier careers with the Church of England and Deloitte Consulting. She has a BA, ! MBA and a PhD, and teaches leadership to clients in the private, public and voluntary sectors. Her passion is how leaders learn, and she was the architect of The Ashridge Leadership Experience, a brain-friendly simulation designed to accelerate the development of future leaders. Eve has written two books: Ethical Leadership (with Carla Millar), and The Church on Capitalism (both Palgrave, 2010). Eve keeps a blog at :


Lucy Ball is Director at Ideas Unlimited, a Leadership and Organisation Development company which has been designing and delivering innovative and engaging development programmes for 12 years with clients such as PepsiCo, Unilever, BSkyB, Royal Bank of Scotland and Npower. Lucy’s background is in change management at Beaufort and Deloitte Consulting, after a brief dalliance with the world of industrial relations in the motor industry. She is passionate about designing development programmes that are live, emotional and engaging experiences. You can find out more at :


Lucy and eve on learning  
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