Learning to Lead

How to learn to lead in a time when leadership, generally, is in decline? How to learn to lead in a time when leaders, generally, are distrusted and disrespected? How to learn to lead in a time when leadership education, training, and development have so obviously fallen short?

The old model of leadership development is vividly exemplified by General Electric’s legendary management training center in Crotonville, New York. Since 1956, when GE bought the leafy 59-acre campus, every one of GE’s chief executives, most famously Jack Welch, has invested heavily invested in the idea that people in high places could learn to lead and manage, and that they could do so best in a sanctuary or retreat of some sort, especially one controlled by GE for its own particular pedagogical purposes. The fact that GE has not, for years, performed particularly well, has not deterred GE’s own leaders and managers from clinging to a model of leadership development that is nothing if not comfortably familiar.

The question is, how long will this apparently blind faith in a pedagogical template of questionable value persist? As Andrew Hill, writing recently in the Financial Times put it, “The GE way… is starting to look like an expensive, even anachronistic exception to the methods used by many companies to shape their future leaders – if they bother shaping them at all.”*

Hill does not focus on the question of metrics, on the question of how we can conclude with any degree of certainty that a leadership program is effective. Rather he points out how leadership roles themselves have changed. He raises the question of why, in an era of “looser networks and frequent job-hopping,” any company would bother to maintain its own leadership development program, especially if it was expensive.

The point of this piece is not to dwell on the anachronistic aspects of General Electric’s leadership programs. Rather it is to say that in-house leadership initiatives are diminishing in number – but that the effectiveness of what replaces them, for example, executive programs, remains still unclear. What is clear is that the appetite for learning to lead remains large. “A 2016 survey of millennials by Deloitte found that 63 percent of employees born since 1982 said their leadership skills were not being fully developed.” Which is precisely why leadership educators and experts should reassess in a major, meaningful way what learning to lead should consist of. All I will add at this point is that Plato thought that learning to lead was a process that took not days, or weeks, or months, or even years. It took decades.

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*FT Big Read. Leadership, June 23, 2017.

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