Leadership Development

Posted on March 4, 2011


Here is some evidence on Leadership Development from a class paper I wrote on Leadership for Sustainability.

Leadership Development

IBM conducts a biennial global survey of  over 1500 CEOs.   The 2010 survey asked CEOs to define priority leadership qualities for the next five years.  The top attribute was creativity.  The top attribute defined by students included in this survey was also creativity (IBM, 2010).  Creativity involves being adaptable, flexible, open to learning, comfortable with ambiguity and a willingness to experiment (IBM, 2010; Uhl-bien, Marion, & McKelvey, 2007; Nelson, Zaccaro, and Herman, 2010; Norton, 2010).

Leadership development programs have been described as being short-lived: having a honeymoon period of implementation followed by a period of months in which the learned behaviors become essentially absent in everyday practice (Boyatzis, 2008).  So how do we develop creative leaders who embrace change, learning, ambiguity and complexity?  In the IBM study (2010) CEOs reported that they no longer had time to weigh decisions and 54% reported the need for rapid decisions based on somewhat complex data and much uncertainty.  Standout CEOs have abandoned the control style of leadership in favor of influencing and persuading as well as being the instigator of change and disrupter of standard business models (IBM, 2010).  CEOs borrow from other industries and develop multiple modes of communications with employees, peers and customers (IBM, 2010).

One way to create sustainable leadership behaviors is by designing the development program with intentional change theory. This has been shown to be effective in undergraduate and MBA programs (Boyatzis, 2008). In order to help leaders develop into creative leaders, change must be integrated into the leaders’ feelings, perceptions and behaviors (Boyatzis, 2008).  DeMeuse, Dai, and Hallenbeck (2010) describe the concept of learning agility as a method to assess the ability to learn from experience and the ability to adapt behaviors to situations. Measuring learning agility could be a first step in the leadership development process.

The next step would be to develop adaptability skills. Nelson, Zaccaro and Herman (2010) offer two training techniques for this: experiential variety and strategic information provision.  In these techniques, practice scenarios might use various examples that appear different but in which the same underlying principles should apply (Nelson, et al., 2010). These techniques involve such concepts as scanning the environment and cognitive frame changing (Nelson, et al., 2010).  In coaching a leader Nelson et al., (2010) recommend explicitly pushing a leader to consider other perspectives. This is aligned with the IBM survey in which CEOs recommended “borrowing” frameworks from other industries. Scanning the environment refers to not only being aware of what is going on in one’s own division but and one’s organization but also in the systems within which the company exists. Senge and Drucker (1999) alluded to this in describing population changes and disruptive changes particularly in technology that no one can truly predict but must develop a framework for managing. Yukl and Mahsud (2010) recommend training in which leaders scan the environment for emerging threats and opportunities, develop a plan, monitor the progress of the plan and then use this knowledge to refine their own mental models.  Teach models that can be applied to unknown situations that all leaders will inevitably encounter.

Winum (2003) describes unique benefits that psychology trained coaches bring to leadership development as described above. Psychology understands behavior and the leadership of organizations involves human behavior (Winum, 2003). Those trained in psychology also have expertise in assessment methodologies (Winum, 2003). This is necessary for helping leaders in self assessment such as learning agility.   Psychologists are bound by a code of ethics which many other types of leadership development coaches are not (Wimun, 2003).


Haeuesler (2010) recommends the adaptive leadership model for physicians in hospital care. Casida and Pinto-Zipp (2008) describe nursing leaders of the future as those who must handle complex and constantly-changing situations. Both of these professions are stepped in traditional practices and change is not easily embraced.  Leaders that emerge in these professions usually do so because of clinical expertise and thus these are leaders who would greatly benefit from leadership development programs. The emphasis on Complexity Leadership theory and the resultant models of flexible and adaptable leadership would serve these leaders well in sustaining their organizations in the changing environment of healthcare.  The advice of Senge and Drucker (1999), expanded and updated by the IBM survey of CEOs (2010) show that these leaders need to be creative, constantly learning, willing to experiment and willing to adapt to evolving conditions as well as position themselves and their organizations to adapt and learn in yet undefined future situations.  It seems the more linear concept of planned abandonment mentioned in Senge and Drucker (1999) has been replaced by the more complex principle of continual adaptation.

References (Read some of these articles to review the evidence for yourself)

Boyatzis, R. E. (2008). Leadership development from a complexity perspective. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 60(4), 298-313.

Casida, J. & Pinto-Zipp, G. (2008).  Leadership-Organizational culture relationship in Nursing units of acute care hospitals. Nursing Economics, 26(1). 7-15.

DeMeuse, K. P., Dai, G., & Hallenbeck, G. S. (2010). Learning agility: A construct whose time has come. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 119-130.

Haeusler, J. C. (2010). Medicine Needs Adaptive Leadership. Physician Executive, 36(2), 12-15.

IBM. (2010). Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the global CEO survey. IBM Global Business Services. 1-71.

Nelson, J. K., Zaccaro, S. J., & Herman, J. L. (2010). Strategic information provision and experiential variety as tools for developing adaptive leadership skills. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 131-142.

Norton, L. W. (2010). Flexible leadership: An integrative perspective. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 143-150.

Senge, P.M.  & Drucker, P.F. (1999). Leading in a time of change: What it will take to lead tomorrow (video). Retrieved from Capella University website Course PSY8720.

Winum, P. C. (2003). Developing leadership: What is distinctive about what psychologists can offer? Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 55(1), 41-46.

Yukl, G. (2009). Leading organizational learning: Reflections on theory and research. The Leadership Quarterly, 20(1), 49-53.

Yukl, G., & Mahsud, R. (2010). Why flexible and adaptive leadership is essential. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 81-93.