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Essay, Leadership DevelopmentLeadership Development Has Failed. But There’s a Better Model

Shift power from the individual to the team. Shared leadership is a situationally-intelligent process where leadership and followership flow from one to the other.

We are swamped by leadership advice from countless gurus. In the U.S., we give the leadership development industry more than $24 billion annually. It is the No. 1 category in corporate learning and development spending.

What do we get for all this time and money spent on studying leadership? If the purpose of leadership is to effectuate positive change, the answer is “not much.” According to Deloitte, the return on assets for the U.S. economy has steadily declined since 1965. These days, the mighty stumble daily. In 1958, a company could expect to stay on the S&P 500 list for 61 years. Now the average is just 18 years. Domestic productivity growth averaged only 0.34 percent per year between 2011 and 2015, down 82 percent from the growth experienced between 1990 and 2010.

That’s the business view. Have investments in leadership development resulted in an inspired workforce? Again, the answer is no. The industry that consumes billions of dollars intended to develop leaders has failed the leader, the organization and society. It’s time to boldly say “the emperor has no clothes.” A revolution is forming, presenting you, the learning leader with a big question. Will you lead that revolution, be toppled by it, or just get run over?

Teams Drive Success

A model that clearly outperforms the myth of the “omnipotent hero-leader” already exists. Unfortunately, the hero leader myth has blinded us to what’s right before our eyes. It’s called teaming.

In Western business culture, the concept of the strong leader is held supreme; the team is an afterthought. Yet we venerate the idea of teams in sports. There, we understand that stars are important, but if the team doesn’t act as an integrated unit, success is beyond reach.

A 2016 New York Times article, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” explains that effective teamwork is a win-win for employees and organizations alike: “people working in teams tend to achieve better results and report higher job satisfaction,” while “profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more.”

When well-trained, teams are a powerful tool with which to achieve organizational goals. Michael A. West’s book “Effective Teamwork: Practical Lessons from Organizational Research” lists numerous benefits teams can offer:

  1. Teams respond more quickly and effectively in the fast changing and hyper-competitive environment most organizations face.
  2. Teams enable organizations to develop products and services more quickly and cost effectively.
  3. Teams enable organizations to learn more effectively and retain that learning.
  4. Cross-functional teams promote improved quality management.
  5. Cross-functional teams can undertake radical change successfully.
  6. Innovation is promoted within team-based organizations because of cross-fertilization of ideas.
  7. Teams can integrate and link in ways individuals cannot to ensure information is processed effectively in the complex structure of modern organizations.

Teams Need Development Too

According to “Collaborative Overload,” a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, collaboration — or teams — is taking over the workplace. “As business becomes increasingly global and cross-functional, silos are breaking down, connectivity is increasing, and teamwork is seen as key to organizational success.” The article also explained that the time managers and employees spend in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent.

Teams can solve strategic problems, drive innovation, serve customers’ needs, impact your bottom line, and most importantly, offer competitive advantage against your rivals. From the C-suite to the shop floor, teams address key value creation activities in all businesses. Given that well-functioning teams are so effective at solving critical problems, you’d expect that organizations would invest heavily in helping teams develop. You’d be wrong.

How much do we spend in the U.S. on team development? No one knows for sure because it’s too small to track. It’s certainly a tiny fraction of the $24 billion largely wasted on leadership development. As a result, most of our teams perform poorly.

In any organization, the most important team is the leadership team. In “Senior Leadership Teams: What it Takes to Make Them Great,” Harvard’s Ruth Wageman surveyed performance for 120 senior leadership teams from companies of all sizes around the globe. An eye-popping four out of five of those leadership teams performed at levels described as either “poor” (42 percent) or “mediocre” (37 percent). That’s an unacceptably high rate (about 80 percent) of failure if we’re looking for teams to perform better than “mediocre.”

Stanford Professor Behnam Tabrizi studied cross-functional teams for three years in several industries, including software, retail, pharmaceuticals and financial services. He published his findings in a 2015 Harvard Business Review article whose very title tells the depressing story: “75% of Cross-Functional Teams are Dysfunctional.”

A New Model for Success

No single person can make an organization successful. It takes teaming.

Teaming occurs when people come together and apply their expertise to perform complex tasks or develop solutions to novel problems. Fast-moving work environments need people who have the skills and flexibility to act in moments of potential collaboration, whenever and wherever they appear.

Teaming requires a modified conceptualization of leadership. Yes, there needs to be a formal leader in most teams and in successful organizations. But this leader shares leadership responsibility with those on the team who have expertise or other unique perspectives. It’s called shared leadership. It’s a situationally intelligent process where leadership and followership flows from one to another based on the circumstances.

Leading and teaming are the two halves of a healthy whole. In complex, high functioning organizations, you cannot have one without the other. Success ultimately demands both.

Join the revolution. Build a better future where your people have the skills — and your organization has the culture — to create high performing teams. Invest in those teams and improve your ROI.

Sean M. Gallagher is CEO of the Influence Success Company, a team coaching and development firm. Comment below or email@editor@CLOmedia.com.

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