McKinsey says Leadership Development Isn't Working. The Functional Approach Agrees.

Let me start by saying that I love anyone who says leadership development isn't working. I can't argue with that perspective. It's even better when there's a McKinsey survey that says senior executives feel the same way.

Funny thing is, the authors of "What's Missing in Leadership Development?" actually argue that leadership development is working - when we do it a certain way.


The survey authors correlated 50 possible interventions to senior executives' perception of success in developing leaders. Each of these 50 things adds up, so doing half of the actions creates a leadership effective development strategy that executives view as 30% effective, and doing 40 of the 50 resulted in 80% success.


However, four groups of these interventions appeared most effective. Here are the four critical characteristics of effective leadership development, in the words of McKinsey researchers Claudio Feser, Nicolai Nielsen, and Michael Rennie:

  1. Contextualize the program based on the organization's position and strategy.

  2. Ensure sufficient reach across the organization.

  3. Design the program for the transfer of learning.

  4. Use system reinforcements to lock in change.

The same points, in my words:

  1. Leadership is behavioral and situational. Develop behaviors in what is relevant to the organization and its leaders' specific challenges.

  2. Teach leadership concepts and practices across the organization, not just in groups who have leadership positions.

  3. Learning occurs outside of the classroom, and success requires that organizations facilitate the interchange of knowledge throughout the entire organization.

  4. Organizational pressure to avoid change stomps out the improvements of learning. Build organizational processes, procedures, and practices that minimize this resistance to the new and unfamiliar.

This is the functional approach, more or less, in a nutshell.


So why is this so hard? because our mental model of leadership is built to avoid the implications of this approach. The traditional model of leadership says that we train specific people in certain general, universal tactics and that they will then lead others through their force of will. The functional approach says that leadership is a complex set of behaviors and a process to select them, dependent on learned patterns that resist change and distributed among all members of the organization. When we shift our thinking, the approach described in the four points above becomes obvious: how else would we solve the problem?


As you think about this mental shift, consider the following questions in your organization right now:


  • Do you see aspects of leadership in the daily activities of all of your employees, even the most junior?

  • Do you see the connections between these individuals' tasks and the quality of the final output of the organization?

  • Do you see the points where the interactions between employees limit the quality of that output?

  • Do you see leverage points that can change these interactions?

  • Do you have a plan for the behavior you want to introduce, and the way that you will introduce it?


The functional approach to leadership is very different from traditional leadership development models, and this difference allows us as development professionals to create excellent leaders. It also allows you as a leadership practitioner to bring out excellence in your group.

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