We need to start creating better leaders – and fast

How we prepare tomorrow’s managers needs to dramatically change if we’re to avoid a leadership crisis, says Elke Edwards

According to Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Most of us know the phrase, and many of us use it. Yet in the area of leadership, we ignore it. 

How many extraordinary leaders do you know? One? Three? Four? I have been asking that question for years now and, to date, no-one has ever said above four. And yet, right now, when arguably we have never had a greater need for exceptional leadership and, when there is so much knowledge about what it takes to create an extraordinary leader, leadership greatness still seems to elude us. 

I think I know why.

Imagine for a moment that you wanted to do a skydive. Someone hands you a backpack – supposedly with a parachute in it and says, “There you go, get in the plane, jump out and, if you are any good at it, we will give you some training.” It probably isn’t going to end well.

Yet that’s exactly what we do with leadership – promote people and think about teaching them how to do it later on. Only when we change our approach, will we get better leaders. 

Right now, there is nowhere in our standard education system or early career development where we learn the principles of self-leadership, let alone how to lead others. Yes, there are plenty of activities and opportunities where students, graduates or apprentices can get some leadership experience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will learn how to lead. 

So what should we do? We recognise that we need better leaders but are we prepared to do what it takes to get them? Given a magic wand, this is what I would do:

Start sooner. Put the principles of self-leadership and leading others into schools, universities, apprentice and graduate schemes, as well as emerging leader and talent programmes. The change we need is not going to happen by leaving it to the old guard alone. Instead, we need to equip our talent, our future leaders, with the knowledge and skills they need to become exceptional leaders.

Start with the individual. Traditional leadership development is all about the organisation. A group of senior people decide the values and the leadership behaviours they want to see, get all their high potentials in room and try and imbue them with their list. This system is not producing better leaders. Individuals have their own values and their own beliefs, and they are changing by generation. They also have something that puts them in their element – the thing, that when they do it, means they truly thrive and perform. We need to start here. Help people understand themselves so well, that they know how to bring all they have and be their brilliant selves. 

Change what we teach. There is no doubt change is afoot. We’re in the midst of a leadership crisis, attrition rates have reached a record high and for the first time ever we have four generations in one workplace. As we live through the fourth Industrial revolution, preparing our brightest emerging talent for the demands of a very different world has never been more important. 

We should be teaching human skills – collaboration, communication, creativity, coaching, presence, agile learning, wellness and much more. In a world where over 70 per cent of jobs will change as a result of technology, we will be left with the jobs that only humans can do. Being human has never been more valuable or important.

The fact is that if we want to change anything – our personal lives, our organisations, our communities, then it’is leadership that’s the route. But not leadership as we know it. Leadership that starts with self-leadership. Leadership that is based on deep self-knowledge and equipped with a set of skills that is relevant, impactful and always growing.

And if we’re going to do that, it may be time to listen to old Albert.

Elke Edwards is the founder of Ivy House London