Rethinking Leadership: It’s Time to Get Personal and Listen

March 14, 2024 Share this article:

Transformational Leadership

By Jamie Garner, Head of Transformational Leadership with The Inzito Partnership / AltoPartners UK

Gone are the days when a single blueprint for leadership excellence could be rolled out across the board in hopes of sparking organisational transformation.

The truth is, not all leadership roles are cut from the same cloth, and the notion of a ‘perfect leader’ is as mythical as it is unhelpful. In an era marked by digital innovation, environmental crises, and global pandemics, the call for leaders to navigate these tumultuous waters has never been louder.

But here’s the twist: not every leader needs to be a transformative hero. In many cases, it’s about maintaining a steady hand – and that’s where lessons from the past continue to be useful (up to a point). What is crucial, however, is that when disruption and transformation are on the agenda, the approach to leadership development must be as unique as the context and challenges at hand.

Where we’ve come from may not be the best (and certainly not the only) place to learn from

For as long as businesses have existed, they’ve been riding the waves of change, from the smokestacks of the Industrial Revolution to the digital streams of the 21st century. Yet, with the growing recognition that an overwhelming majority of organisational transformations are hitting the rocks – somewhere close to 80% – the spotlight is finally turning to leadership, or rather, the way we’ve been developing it, to seek different answers.

The narrative has long been that a good leader today will be a good leader tomorrow, armed as they are with an array of skills, knowledge and experience and (therefore) a roadmap to success which can be unfurled to suit any context. Except when it can’t. This one-size-fits-all approach to leadership development is faltering in the face of shifting market forces, larger-than-life challenges of climate change, conflict, polarisation, pandemic recovery, and the digital deluge, stretching adaptive capacity to its limit.

My associate Dave Sollars is well-versed in understanding how many of today’s most senior global executives feel. His observations and experience as a developmental coach for both global multi-national corporate executives and as faculty with MIT and Harvard executive education programmes over the last 15 years mirrors my experience. He points out that leaders now find themselves in uncharted territory. While programmes that enhance knowledge and skills have their place, executives also feel that help in developing the ability to adapt and make swift decisions under pressure is of critical importance to them – but less available.

This isn’t about doing things faster or sticking to the script; it’s about rewriting the playbook entirely, embracing agility and resilience – in some ways, this means being willing and able to ‘see themselves differently’ so that they can see their challenges and contexts differently.

Where to from here for traditional leadership development?

The primary focus on skills and attainment of the model of ‘successful’ leadership doesn’t quite cut it when faced with the unprecedented complexity that is the hallmark of the post-pandemic era. Over the last few years, we have noticed that the leaders who truly make a difference are also those who are self-aware, adaptable, and – crucially - comfortable with not having all the answers.

The crux of the issue is that we’ve been prone to lumping all leadership into one basket, leading to the assumption that there’s likely to be one ‘model’ solution for helping build or develop the perfect leader. What this approach fails to recognise is that a) not every leadership role requires transformation, and b) no two situations are identical. In these circumstances, a context-focused development approach that allows the individual to grow ‘as far as they can’ can be far more effective than striving for success using a mythical model of perfection. This means embracing both horizontal skills development and vertical growth, where leaders not only learn new skills but also evolve their worldview and approach to challenges.

Based on insights from research by Nick Petrie, I would argue for a more nuanced and expansive approach to leadership development. This includes recognising the value of both skill acquisition (horizontal development) and the deep, transformative growth (vertical development) that shifts how leaders perceive and interact with the world around them. It’s about moving away from a one-size-fits-all curriculum to a more personalised journey that reflects the unique challenges and contexts each leader faces.

In this new paradigm, leadership development isn’t purely owned by HR departments. The onus is shifted onto the leaders themselves, taking in their self-awareness and accountability and their intrinsic drive for personal growth rather than for the benefit of organisational or personal rewards. It sees leadership not as a title held by a few at the top but as a quality that can be fostered across an organisation. And importantly, it shifts the focus from the ‘what’ of leadership to the ‘what and how’, emphasising the application of skills in real-world scenarios.

Ultimately, the path to successful organisational transformation is paved with leadership development that is as diverse and dynamic as the challenges we face.

Time to get personal

It’s time to get personal in our approach to leadership, recognising that while not all leaders need to be transformers, those tasked with navigating change will benefit from a development journey that’s tailored to their unique context and to the specific transformations they aim to lead. And for us, as consultants and advisors to these leaders: it’s time to shelve our preconceptions about what leaders need and learn to pay attention to what individual leaders are telling us they need. We simply have to listen better.