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Building Better Leaders

Leadership development matters, but how do individuals and organizations engage in it successfully?

June 20, 2006
Professor David Perkins

Educational leaders are increasingly looking at lessons learned in other industries to inform their leadership strategies. The Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA) is a research initiative at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, led by principal investigator and Professor of Education David Perkins. LILA is a collaborative learning community of business leaders and Harvard researchers whose members include executives from diverse organizations, including the U.S. Army, the World Bank, Cisco Systems, Raytheon, Humana, YMCA, and Deloitte.

In this piece, the LILA contributors suggest that successful leadership development hinges on:

1. Focusing on the development of leadership, not individual leaders;

2. Distributing leadership responsibility throughout an organization;

3. Embedding leadership development in the context of people's work; and

4. Assessing your organization's capacity for, and immunity to, leadership development.

"Are we witnessing the end of leadership?" asks LILA principal investigator David Perkins. With this provocative question, Perkins suggests that the voluminous and ever-growing body of leadership research has invested this term with so many (often conflicting) meanings that it may have lost much of its utility.

In his book, King Arthur's Round Table (2003), Perkins identifies four different patterns or "archetypes" onto which the many nuanced varieties of leadership might be mapped:

Answer-Centered Leadership. Declares what's to be done and why. Answer-centered leaders provide direction from the top of an organization.

Vision-Centered Leadership. Offers a strong energizing vision about the general direction of an organization, along with great personal commitment.

Inquiry-Centered Leadership. Fosters inquiry at various levels through questions, facilitation, and establishing community and organizational structures supportive of inquiry.

Leadership by Leaving Alone. Leaves people alone to find their way. This Darwinian approach reveals the personnel who have what it takes to survive and assume roles with increasing responsibility.

Despite the lack of consensus about what constitutes leadership, organizations generally agree on one point  there isn't enough of it. The ongoing obsession with the leadership theme reflects the widespread belief that developing leaders and leadership is a sure means of transforming organizations for the better.

So, leadership development matters  but how do we engage in it successfully? LILA's members and researchers explore this question via in-depth discussions of their own organizational experiences. These discussions have yielded rich insights and practical suggestions that can be distilled into four principal injunctions:

1. Focus on developing leadership, not individual leaders

In spite of the proliferation of competing theories of leadership, the most popular leadership development publications and programs reinforce the ideal of the "leader as individual hero"  the strong-willed, charismatic chief executive who personifies an organization and its success. The celebrity CEO makes decisions at the top of a hierarchical, command-and-control structure. In such organizations, leadership development entails selecting a subset of personnel for special training that will make these individuals "leaders"  irrespective of the contexts and web of relationships in which they operate.

This model of leadership development is simplistic; it errs in conceiving of leadership as a property of a few, select individuals, rather than as an input into a variety of situations. LILA's contributors encourage us to think of leadership as a product of the relations that exist between people in an organization. World Bank Chief Learning Officer Nicolas Gorjestani cites the need to develop a new set of "behavioral competencies" at the Bank  competencies that have not traditionally been associated with the "charismatic individual" model of leadership.

Gorjestani identifies these key competencies as humility, empathy, curiosity, listening, hearing, and patience. By cultivating such competencies in teams and across organizations, leadership is expressed as enabling  as allowing the valuable talents and contributions of others to emerge  rather than as dictating to others or compelling imitation of one's own behavior. Speaking to this distinction, Linda Hill of the Harvard Business School advocates asking the question, "Am I creating a context where others can lead?" rather than the question, "Am I leading?"

2. Distribute the responsibility for leadership throughout your organization

Traditionally, leadership development programs have been targeted at executives and managers who occupy nominal positions of authority and exhibit leadership "potential." In a fully adaptive, successful organization, leadership is expressed when an individual plays one of several roles that, collectively, ensure the effective functioning of that organization. John Clippinger, a scholar of distributed leadership at the Harvard Law School, proposes that these include (but are not limited to) the following "archetypal" leadership roles:

The Exemplar. The role model that others imitate; exemplifies the assessment criteria and sets the standards for becoming a member of a network; important in setting the tone and culture of the organization.

The Gatekeeper. Understands the criteria for being included, retained, elevated, and excluded from a network; decides who is in and who is out; denies admittance to, and weeds out, those who fail to meet the standards of the network.

The Visionary. Determines what is limiting about the present and shows what is possible for the future; imagines new possibilities and plays a critical role in moving the networked organization in new directions.

The Truth-Teller. Keeps the network honest; identifies half-truths, cheaters, liars, and spinners in the networked organization; exemplifies independence, transparency, accuracy, and candor in the face of tremendous pressure.

The Fixer. Knows how to get things done; pragmatic and results oriented; creative in solving problems, and often bends rules and works through informal networks.

The Connector. Participates in multiple social networks; has numerous friends, contacts, and connections; critical to identifying and accessing new resources and helping get a message out.

The Enforcer. Uses coercion and pressure (perhaps physical, but more likely peer or psychological) to compel adherence to rules and network standards.

The Facilitator. Creates sub-networks or communities that provide network value and benefit an entire group; plays the role of a "community coordinator" in communities of practice; vital to coordinating and enabling other actors and decision-makers.

It is necessary for every individual within an organization to be encouraged to exercise leadership from time to time, under circumstances where their particular knowledge, skills, and circumstances make it advantageous to do so. Consequently, leadership development initiatives must encourage people to think in terms of alternating between leader and follower roles.

3. Embed leadership development in work processes, rather than in leadership training

The idea that leadership is a property of organizational networks  and that every person within a structure can, and should, play leadership roles  has profound implications for leadership development. Perkins and Hill suggest that leadership development is most effective when personnel are encouraged to learn from "real world" problems and challenges presented by their jobs. Effective leadership development does not happen in a vacuum, or in a classroom, but in the flow of engaging work. It is a process, not an event.

4. Assess your organization's capacity for (and immunity to) leadership development

Organizations often leap into leadership development initiatives without assessing their capacity for, and resistance to, such programs. LILA members caution against the development of an "avoidance culture"; organizations that start new initiatives in order to avoid following through on prior initiatives are exhibiting the signs of an avoidance culture.

Perkins refers to the "idea-action gap"  the inability of many organizations to follow through on avowed commitments to change-oriented programs, such as leadership development. Leadership initiatives often fail because their proponents fail to recognize, and locate the sources of, unacknowledged commitments that compete with their new, expressed commitments. An expressed commitment to more distributed leadership may, for example, conflict with a deeper, hidden commitment to preserving decision-making autonomy at the top of an organization as a bulwark against the erosion of senior managements' status and rewards.

Excerpted with permission from "Developing Leaders & Leadership in Organizations," by David A. Cole, LILA Insights, July 2005.

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