Behaviourist B.F. Skinner maintained that education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten. There has been much written about the need to create learning organisations and more resources than fleas on a stray dog have been spent on leadership formation (learning) within organisations. The fact that leadership formation assumes such a high priority within most organisations is fully justified but in terms of how it is done, is it money well spent?

In the face of this learning avalanche, a nagging question persists: Is the effort surrounding leadership formation producing learning or education (as per Skinner’s definition)?  In other words, are organisations and the individuals within them, better off for all the attention on leadership development? Are our leadership programmes really making a significant impact on the way we think, do business, and live our lives?

If, in the context of our leadership development programmes, it is real education we are after, then we can learn something from Harvard psychologist and educator, Howard Gardner.  Gardner argues that education shifts are the result of several factors. It stands to reason then that understanding these factors that serve as the driving forces underpinning educational shifts, will provide valuable insights for companies serious about leadership formation.

Firstly, there is the shift in values. In broad terms this shift has seen education relocate from a religious base to that of a secular one. Significantly education is fundamentally and primarily a values undertaking. If you wish to know something of a company’s values, look no further than its approach to leadership development. However, there has also been another significant value shift that companies ignore at their peril. I am referring to the value shift that has occurred across the respective generations. As these generations meet in the workplace there is an often paradoxical collision between their respective values.

Generational Theory presupposes that the different behaviour exhibited by the respective generations is due to a differing set of values driving that behaviour. What this means is that companies which are serious about developing leaders need to pay careful attention as to how the shift in values impacts the development, structure and delivery of their programmes. For one thing there needs to be move away from a content based approach to leadership development to one that places more emphasis on process and outcomes. This means that leadership processes need to replace leadership programmes and an understanding that the content aspect of leadership development is the ‘easy part’. Learning about process and how an individual or group can assume responsibility for their own learning (education) are far tougher undertakings.  This is a realisation that is still to be learnt by many business schools and academic institutions which persist in content-driven curriculum at the expense of a focus on process and outcomes. Instead of ceremonies to hand-out certificates of learning, there should be ceremonies of ‘certificate burning’ to symbolize the commitment to a journey begun rather than one ended! Radical perhaps, but it would serve to strike a chord and certainly make a point. If you ever come across such an event please do invite me.

A second shift-driver is that of science. Specifically how scientists have come to understand how humans learn. A simple way to express the shift is from intelligence to intelligences. In other words, a move away from the centuries old view that there is a single thing called intelligence – which varies in its development from person to person, to that of seeing people in procession of multiple ‘intelligences’.(This of course doesn’t apply to those in the  developmental stage we refer to as adolescence!) A derivative of the ‘single intelligence’ has been to adopt a uniform approach to learning where everyone is treated equally when it comes to their capacity to absorb and appropriate the input received.  It is a ‘one size fits all’ kind of approach which is stubbornly resisting relinquishing its dominant position in a world characterised by acts of urban terror and rising xenophobia. The new scientific insights will affect a philosophy towards learning which is far more individualistic. The growing emphasis will be on finding out as much information about the person as possible and designing a learning process that is congenial to that specific individual, aided of course by advances in technology. This tailor-made approach will become the template for developing leaders in the context of the emerging Connection economy.

This shift will impact approaches to both teaching and learning; it will also require nimbleness and adaptability from the design to the implementation when it comes to leadership development within companies. Companies in the habit of outsourcing the responsibility of leadership education to consultants and business schools had better pay close attention to the philosophy and methodology employed by those tasked with such responsibility.

A third shift-driver is that of globalization. This reality is demanding a new breed of leader. Anyone hoping to lead in a world colliding with itself at every intersection will need to attain new levels of interpersonal intelligence and multicultural understanding. The old frameworks simply no longer work. Learning from the future will supersede learning from the past in much the same way that talent is replacing experience when it comes to what companies are looking to acquire. Does this mean there is nothing we can learn from the past or that experience is totally redundant?

Of course not.

But companies need to recognise the new requirements and check whether or not they are making the necessary adjustments. This is not just fine-tuning that we are talking about. Here’s a tip: When last did you have a programme / process that failed? If you can’t recall one the chances are that your company isn’t doing enough in making this adjustment… give yourself a ‘F’ on your balanced scorecard! Responding to forces of globalisation and respecting the diversity of culture and belief systems is neither easy nor optional. How is your company going about this? What conversations are you having within your company concerning this paradoxical challenge?

As we consider these three shift-drivers is it any wonder that leadership development takes on a whole new complexion? In my experience companies worldwide are simply not doing enough thinking when it comes to how to develop leadership within the complexity of our current reality. Far too many programmes are captive to old thinking and paradigms. Not enough authentic conversation is taking place and we are hiding behind sophisticated developmental tools and machinery that is costly, ineffective and redundant. The implications of abandoning it are intimidating but the consequences of not doing so could prove fatal. This paralysis pervades not merely the halls of academia but the corridors of business.

I have just returned from two high level leadership development programmes in two companies from very different industries. Both companies are leaders in their respective industries, both are blue-chip organisations and both are multinationals. But sadly, in both cases the shadow cast by the legacy of a content-driven approach to ‘learning’ was all too apparent. Impressive programmes with big budgets but I fear programmes where little real ‘education’ will ensue and ones with questionable outcomes.

We need education: that which survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten. The challenge is not the lack of teachers but the lack of awareness (the Buddhists have a saying that when the learner is ready the teacher appears). This task will take time and so, in the words of one French military leader, “In that case we had better start today”.

Why not make an appointment with some participants of a leadership development programme your company is running, take them to lunch, and ask them – really ask them, what they think of what they are experiencing. You may be surprised!


Globalization: Culture and Education in the new Millenium: Marcelo M. Suarez-Orozco and Desiree boalian Qin-Hilliard

How Education Changes: Considerations of History, Science and Values: Howard Gardner        

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