Whenever leadership development is discussed, it is typically done in the context of a person as a leader. Or if an organisation is leading in a field (e.g. by operating sustainably), it is mostly ascribed to a person (e.g. the CEO, the owners of the family business) bringing this about. While this is undoubtedly true in many cases, in others it is not. Without wanting to be cynical about some of the case studies I heard, this apparently inspiring leadership could also be the result of a synergistic interaction between changing legislation, a receptive organisational culture and the perception of a business advantage (e.g. green is cool and can also be very profitable in certain industries).
The main point I want to make, however, is that leaders are often limited by their organisational and institutional context. Even if they wanted to change things, they can’t. Cases were mentioned where CEOs left their organisations to join an NGO, or former business school graduates left their lucrative employment to return to their business school in order to find meaning through teaching. I regard this as failed leadership. By analogy, those leaders moved from the trenches to the sick ward. Alas, only the former wins the war, even if the latter is an important component.*
What I did not hear was the diagnosis that no amount of additional leadership development of the persons concerned will help them, or how they can be supported. From a systems thinking perspective, one could argue that these leaders are trapped by the organisational, industrial, institutional and societal structures (ranging from mind structures like the currently accepted paradigms, to organisational structures, legal frameworks, stakeholder pressures, technological legacies, international competition and resource limits, amongst others). Analogous to the flow of the river being determined by the shape of the river bed (which prevents it to flow in a different way), the potential leaders are prevented from initiating change as they want to by the interaction of those structures. What is required here is a collective effort by different types of leaders in facilitating a paradigm shift in decision-makers at all levels of society and in redesigning some of our current cultural, economic and political institutions. By analogy, it requires the digging of new riverbeds in different parts of society so that the water cannot do anything else but flow sustainably to where it is needed (i.e. based on a vision of a desired ideal future, shared by its stakeholders). This could be facilitated by systemic
* note on military leadership: Often military leaders are used as case studies and held up as examples in the context of leadership development. The relevance of those case studies is however limited precisely by the point I try to make above: they are not constrained by the structures inherent in the context to the same extent as other leaders (e.g. leaders in business), because the paradigm and vision to win the war is shared and supported by the larger context (e.g. society, large parts of the economy, a military tradition and even by religion). Hence they do not have to fight against a dominant paradigm being against them and institutional structures preventing them.