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BW Businessworld

Can You Train Leaders?

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Leadership is a word that is rarely defined.  Senior managers talk about leading their organisations to success.  Middle managers talk about leadership as a skill and a behavior.  Employees often criticise their bosses for not being good leaders.  Management gurus talk about dozens of different theories of leadership such as transactional and transformational leadership.  And finally executive development outfits stake their reputations on developing or training leaders.

Whether or not you believe that someone can be trained to lead depends on how you define leadership.  Definition 1:  If leadership is the combination of soft skills, behaviors, and traits that allow individuals to influence others, then the answer to the question: "Can you train leaders?" is likely: no

Definition 2:  If leadership is the combination of tangible knowledge and situational approaches, then the answer to the question might be: yes, people can be trained to lead.

In the executive development community the standard for leadership development programs is Definition 1, with only a few firms giving some importance to the elements in Definition 2.  For decades, leadership training programs have focused on themes such as (1) coaching and mentoring, (2) leading teams, (3) managing conflict and collaboration, (4) creating engagement and commitment, (5) being aware of your own behavior and style, and (6) dealing with power and politics.  Although these are useful areas in which to train leaders, they capture a very narrow part of leadership.  This is evidenced by the reality that most leadership training is delivered by specialists in areas of organisational behavior, applied behavioral science, and industrial psychology.  This approach, although well-honed over time, flies in the face of what most CEOs argue constitutes a good leader:  'someone who can corral the firm's resources successfully, repeatedly and in different ways to enable the organisation to make money in an ever-changing industry' - no mention of soft skills, traits or behaviors. In fact in the corporate board room, judging successful leadership is contingent on that manager's ability to create and capture value - profits are the ultimate measure of a leader's success.

I suggest that when senior managers commission their learning and development teams to seek out leadership training, they insist that the themes presented above make up no more than 25 per cent of the content - especially since the jury is still out on whether you can actually train people to coach, mentor, lead teams, etc.  However, senior managers must insist that 75 per cent of the content on leadership training focus on more tangible themes that will help managers gain a better understanding of how to create and capture value, i.e. lead with the intent of boosting the firm's performance.  Learning and Development people must also insist that the firms they partner with to provide leadership training use specialists beyond the fields of organizational behavior and psychology to include specialists in strategy and financial management to deliver leadership training.

When looking to train leaders, senior managers, must insist on the inclusion of the following themes:

Managing Resources:  Successful leaders understand a firm's resource strengths and weaknesses.  They understand how people, systems and structure need to be aligned so that the firm can effectively compete in the market place.  One of the most important jobs of a leader is to take the time to create fit between a firm's resources and opportunities in the external environment - this journey almost always leads to success.

Creating and Sustaining Competitive Advantage:  Successful leaders understand how customers define value, and are able to shape their own firm's value proposition to profitably take advantage of this understanding.  For example, India's middle class is the fastest growing market segment.  But it seems that India's largest retailers are not spending enough time to understand and design the next generation "Indian retail experience" preferring to copy the "western retail experience".  Is this the best way to drive retail revenues in India?

Strategic Thinking:  Successful leaders think strategically.  They are able to identify problems and issues in their own functional areas and understand the cross-enterprise implications of various solutions.  Often managers define problems by their functional area i.e. "this is a marketing issue" or "this is a financial issue".  The reality of business is that there is no marketing decision that doesn't touch finance or vice versa - managers without this level of insight and the skills necessary to think cross enterprise often lose the forest for the trees.  Being too functionally tied can result in losing sight of how to create and capture value for the firm.

Financial Management:  Successful leaders not only think about the qualitative implications of their decisions, but also the quantitative implications.  They know that every decision not matter how small or large has important financial implications - they understand these implications with great clarity and use this information to make strong value creating decisions.  Nonfinancial managers often struggle with the numbers behind their decisions.  For example, if a leader of a business unit is able to increase the level of commitment by his/her employees and make them more engaged, but is unable to successfully drive profitability - is he/she doing his/her job?  Broadly trained leaders never lose sight of this balance.

Can you train leaders?  Leadership training programs that don't take a balanced approach to what it means to lead do not train leaders successfully.  In today's business environment, leaders without the strategic skill set outlined in the above four points - are simply out-dated and cannot be trusted to drive bottom line results.  Leaders without a honed ability to drive organizational excellence are like parents without the ability to discipline or guide their children - both enable disastrous consequences.
The author is Strategy Professor & Managing Director, India - Richard Ivey School of Business