Schooling leaders in the soft skills

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 1 June 2004

Citation

Allio, R.J. (2004), "Schooling leaders in the soft skills", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 32 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/sl.2004.26132cae.001

Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Schooling leaders in the soft skills

Robert J. AllioS&L Contributing Editor Robert J. Allio is a principal of Allio Associates, located in Providence, RI (rallio@worldnet.att.net). A veteran corporate planner and strategist, his most recent book is Seven Faces of Leadership (Xlibris, 2002).

Handbook of Leadership Development

Cynthia D. McCauley and Ellen Van Velsor (Eds) Published by Jossey-Bass, 2004

Since its establishment over 30 years ago, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has developed a stellar reputation for helping individuals and organizations improve their competence as leaders and as developers of leaders. Business Week last year ranked the Center 1 worldwide in leadership education. The Center now operates with a staff of over 500 from offices in the US and overseas, and revenues have grown steadily over the past ten years to almost $60 million in its 2003 fiscal year. More than 20,000 individuals signed up for Center programs last year.

In this newly revised version of the Handbook of Leadership Development, the CCL and its staff have compiled an impressive summary of their experiences and insights into the task of leadership development. Surprisingly, however, the Handbook omits a review of current leadership theories, and declines to present any explicit model for effective leadership.

Instead, the Handbook offers a helpful, if narrowly focused compendium of development practices. From the 15 essays compiled by the editors, we infer that leadership competence results from the development of:

  • self-management (self-awareness, the ability to balance conflicting demands, the ability to learn, leadership values);

  • social capabilities (the ability to build and maintain relationships, the ability to build effective work groups, communications skills, the ability to develop others); and

  • work facilitation capabilities (management skills, the ability to think and act strategically, the ability to think creatively, the ability to initiate and implement change).

The CCL adopts a three-stage process for developing leaders. Stage one begins with assessment (with heavy reliance on 360-degree feedback from subordinates, superiors, and peers). Stage two requires challenge, which takes the form of dealing with new experiences, difficult goals, conflict, and failure or disappointment. In the final stage, support for the new behavior takes the form of coaching and mentoring. According to recent reports, 60 percent of the companies in the Fortune 1000, including major firms such as Dell and Four Seasons, now sponsor formal mentoring programs. Most such programs were established initially to respond to complaints from women and other minorities about limited advancement opportunities, although the benefits to all managers are generally accepted.

The Handbook offers detailed and practical advice on how to manage many components of the process, with heavy emphasis on developing social capabilities. We find little guidance on how to improve strategic thinking or manage change, competencies that most of us would consider to be critical leadership virtues. Nevertheless, several of the 15 chapters present new material, including sections on leadership for different groups or in different contexts: women, people of color, people from other cultures, and global organizations. A chapter on developing organizational capacity for leadership suggests growing awareness that leadership is not a function of individual performance alone. It points out that leadership depends critically on the nature of the organization itself and the connections among individuals. The leader's effectiveness, in other words, is determined by the effectiveness of the followers and the leader's peers. Thus, leading and the development of leaders is a systemic challenge – a conclusion amply supported by the recent disavowal of the virtue of the celebrity leader.

Evidence for the effectiveness of CCL programs is still anecdotal. The reported outcome data take the form of surveys, questionnaires, repeated 360-degree surveys, and interviews with alumni and clients. A number of case histories – Xerox, Methanox, Abrasive Technology, Bayer – assert the importance of "investing in human resources", and offer testimonials to the CCL programs.

Cynics might argue that those who attend CCL programs as an implicit perquisite will be strongly motivated to extol the experience in gratitude for their selection as potential leaders. And the human-resource organizations that sponsor their attendance may simply be acceding to the conventional wisdom that the benefits to the organization exceed the cost. Is all of this then simply the 21st century version of the Hawthorne effect? (The Hawthorne effect refers to a famous study conducted by Elton Mayo from 1927 to 1933 at Western Electric's Hawthorne plant in Illinois. Mayo's research demonstrated that positive changes in working conditions led to significant productivity improvement, but so also did the few negative changes he tested. His conclusion was that workers produced more because they considered themselves to be participants in a beneficial experiment in which management had demonstrated interest – and productivity improvement resulted from a combination of their expectations and the unusual attention they received.)

CCL has yet to meet the test of good research. We need data that permit conclusions about causality or statistical significance. Do all graduates of CCL programs do better? And how about those who don't participate (the control group) – do they under-perform? How much behavioral change occurs and how long does it endure? Since many enlightened graduates of leadership programs regress to old behaviors when they return to toxic cultures, longitudinal studies need to be added to the CCL research agenda.

Of course, it would help if practitioners of leadership training were to agree on a metric for adjudging leadership effectiveness. Best-selling leadership book author Jim Collins's most recent opinion is that we should measure leaders by their legacy, their impact on the organization, its resilience, and its financial performance. Based on my experience, I would argue for measuring them on sustained performance and benefit to the stakeholders and society as a whole.

The Handbook chooses not to evaluate alternative approaches to leader development, such as the experiential programs sponsored by Outward Bound, or the many leadership programs sponsored by business schools. CCL's programs are strongly rooted in social psychology, and suggest that soft skills are more important than superior cognitive skills (Veteran managers might argue that the unusual success exhibited by results-oriented CEOs such as Michael Dell, Bill Gates, and Jack Welch is evidence of the greater importance of cognitive skills). As a result, embracing the CCL model requires a certain act of faith on the part of the reader (and CCL has many apostles!). Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, the Handbook of Leadership Development is a valuable source of information on the current state of one popular approach to leadership training.