Leadership development: Mission Impossible?

by 28 May 2013

Leadership capability is probably the single largest determinant of organisational success. But Geoff Aigner asks just how much impact are senior managers in HR, leadership and talent development really having in developing this capability?

Leadership capability is probably the single largest determinant of organisational success. But just how much impact are senior managers in HR, leadership and talent development really having in developing this capability?

Jane is a senior OD executive in a large business with responsibility for building leadership and change capability, but she faces a lack of recognition for the role she can play in aligning leadership development with the business strategy. (Some people like Jane do not even have a seat at the senior executive table.) Jane is largely straight-jacketed into the ‘hygiene’ functions of her role and not invited to participate in developing real culture change to drive organisational strategy/innovation. Her organisation favours external consultants when it comes to identifying strategies for cutting edge development for the organisation. She is challenged to influence senior business decision-makers from a position of informal authority.

Internally, Jane feels a disconnect with what drove her to do this work in the first place—a belief in people’s potential. She often feels a sense of isolation in working in a ‘different department’ to the rest of the organisation and a lack of collegiality. This creates uncertainty about how to leverage her authority and work politically to influence decision-making.

And the infuriating thing is: Jane knows the opportunity—the hope—in this role is enormous.

People in roles like Jane’s have a mission which is both noble and important: to make a very real and lasting difference to organisational life and impact—for employees, for stakeholders and for the community in which they operate.

An effective HR director and/or leadership development practitioner, with the right tool-kit and skills to influence others and lead change, can significantly enhance an organisation’s ability to foster a culture of creativity, high performance and innovation; to recognise problems and grasp new opportunities as they arise—both internal, (cultural) and external (strategic); to adapt to meet the complex challenges of an increasingly complex and fast-changing environment; to stay connected with its vision and purpose and to create economic, environmental and social value.

The real opportunity in roles like Jane’s is to create value that goes way beyond the limited ‘transactional or ‘hygiene’ functions to which they are so often consigned.

So why is it so difficult for Jane to get the recognition her role deserves? Why is leadership and talent development seen as just ‘training’?

The reason is there are a number of complex challenges to overcome. The role of the talent development practitioner is often given a relatively low status. Sometimes this is self-inflicted as much as a perception perpetuated by others.

The work is being done in a complex environment with shifting agendas and it is highly contested. Everyone has an opinion about it; everyone seems to think they have an answer. It’s not really treated as a profession.

HR, leadership and talent development practitioners need to work across organisational boundaries and diverse functions: they have to demonstrate their value and credibility and find ways to collaborate with very different others, often with different ideas about the problem and the solution.

Management is often seduced by novelty and the predictable. We keep looking to the US or to business schools or universities for models, standards and advice. We purport to be preparing ‘hands-on’ leaders to deal with the real world, but continue to offer development models that have nothing to do with it. ‘Leadership’ is taught theoretically, in classrooms with little opportunity to practise thinking on our feet, taking risks or being challenged to shift our perceptions—of ourselves and of our situations. While the old models make us look and feel safe, are they really doing the job?

It is easy for talent development to lose its connection to its highest purpose. How often are you able to ask yourself, ‘How does my role relate to making a more caring and inclusive organisation?’ and ‘How does your organisation contribute to creating a better world?’

What would make this mission possible?

To succeed in this role requires three key leadership skills:


  1. the ability to articulate and work from a clear, shared sense of organisational and individual purpose;


  1. the ability to build the power you require and work with the power you have—both formal and informal—to influence others and be effective; and lastly,


  1. to work with an empowered understanding of systems and roles—particularly your role. 


While the temptation might be to spend our time and energy learning new, ‘best practice’ leadership concepts and models or expanding our tool-kit, perhaps the most important thing we need is to do a bit of a leadership development ourselves: to apply the best model understand how our own role works—to diagnose and interpret our own leadership challenges and discover how best to leverage our own power and authority for the better good of everyone around us.

We spend money on leadership all the time but how much do we spend on the people who are supposed to be developing the leaders? On the ones who have been given our most valuable resource? On ourselves?

About the author 

Geoff Aigner is the Director of Social Leadership Australia (SLA). He also consults and teaches on a variety of the centre’s programs and consulting engagements. Geoff joined SLA in 2007 after several years of pro bono work with the team. Prior to that he was General Manager at Lee Hecht Harrison, an HR consulting services company. Geoff’s first book, Leadership Beyond Good Intentions: What It Takes to Really Make a Difference, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2011.

Social Leadership Australia
Social Leadership Australia is the leadership centre at The Benevolent Society, Australia’s first charity. The Benevolent Society is a not-for-profit and non-religious organisation which has helped people, families and communities achieve positive change for 200 years. Social Leadership Australia creates better leadership for a better Australia. We develop leadership capability with purpose, we work with organisations and communities to tackle the big issues and we create and share new thinking that makes people want to lead well.  Website: www.benevolent.org.au/leadership.