Leadership Development: 7 Key Trends for the 21st Century

© carlosgardel - Fotolia.com
© carlosgardel - Fotolia.com

Leadership development is one of those topics that everyone talks a lot about but, all too often, does very little to actually follow up on.

That’s why this new study from Bersin & Associates titled High-Impact Leadership Development for the 21st Century caught my eye.

It’s being published in three parts (the first one is out today, with Parts 2 and 3 coming later next month), and according to the company’s press release, it “identifies critical trends that currently drive leadership development and are shaping a new breed of leader – trends that high-impact organizations should be prepared to address to remain competitive in the 21st Century.”

7 leadership development trends

Bersin sent me a copy of Part 1 of High-Impact Leadership Development to review (you can get an Executive Summary here), and what jumped out at me were the seven trends identified in the research as driving leadership development in the 21st Century. They are:

1. Organizations must prioritize investments in leadership development. From the Bersin survey: “Without effective leadership development, corporations and government agencies are at risk due to multiple factors … To mitigate these risks, the vigorous and ongoing application of leadership development is essential … in applying focused leadership development, high-impact organizations often create a leadership council or steering committee that is comprised of senior leadership, HR leaders and business-unit leaders – to motivate, engage and develop talent.”

2. Organizations must create and implement both a leadership strategy and leadership development strategy. From Bersin: “Effective leadership development requires a strong leadership strategy – not just the implementation of programs. Without proper leadership, even the best and boldest strategies die, their potential never realized. Because leadership is more than the individuals in leadership positions, a “leadership strategy” defines the company’s leadership requirements, including the number of leaders and at what levels these leaders should be, as well as the skills, behaviors and capabilities these leaders should have and will need going forward.

3. Leadership competencies must be renewed. From Bersin: “Traditional leadership competencies … still matter – but are evolving to accommodate the changing competitive landscape of the 21st century. Our research revealed five critical factors that are shaping leadership competencies:

    • The need for innovative and creative approaches to doing business and managing talent;
    • The need for agile and flexible organizations and leaders;
    • Global competition;
    • People management “know how”; and,
    • Diverse employee needs.”

4.  Leadership must be globalized. From Bersin: “Companies everywhere are modifying their business plans to expand their footprints internationally. In addition, globalization will intensify unlike any previous time in our history … Companies have to move from hierarchical, top-down leadership models to inclusive, participatory global leadership styles. These global forces require that leaders of the 21st century have a global perspective, are willing to embrace diversity and cultural differences, and look beyond their immediate geography to solve problems.”

5. Being technologically savvy is key to leadership effectiveness. From Bersin: “Technological savvy has rapidly become an integral aspect of today’s leadership effectiveness … Technology facilitates communication among leaders and employees, regardless of their physical location or when the communication needs to occur … Leading virtually is already a reality, and requirements to lead geographically dispersed units and teams will only increase. Technology will play a major role in dealing effectively with this challenge.”

6. Leadership development now targets all leader audiences. From Bersin: “Our research validates that targeting all leader levels for development is a best practice … Today, more and more best-practice companies are committing to developing their emerging leaders7, front- line leaders and midlevel leaders as much as they develop executives, senior leaders and high potentials – because they recognize leadership is a key component of jobs at all levels.”

7. Leadership development solutions need to evolve as a process, not a one-time event. From Bersin: “To achieve lasting and substantial benefits, leadership learning experiences must apply to real organizational issues and take place in small, collaborative cohorts. This approach to learning mimics how leaders work together in the workplace – formally and informally. The goal of leadership development ultimately involves action, not knowledge. Development means providing leaders with ongoing learning opportunities to learn from their work, rather than taking them away from their work to learn.”

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“Specific practices  that drive … business results”

“High performing organizations that continuously invest in leadership development are now defining new 21st century leadership models to deal with today’s gaps in their leadership pipelines and the new global business environment,” said Josh Bersin, chief executive officer and president, Bersin & Associates, in a press release about the leadership study.

“These people-focused organizations have generated nearly 60 percent improved business growth, reported a 66 percent improvement in bench strength, and showed a 62 percent improvement in employee retention,” he said. “And our research shows that it is not enough to just spend money on leadership training, but rather to follow specific practices that drive accelerated business results.”

The study, according to Bersin, is based on surveys and interviews with more than 300 leadership development and learning development managers around the world. It’s described as a “foundational piece of research” in Bersin & Associates’ new Leadership Development Practice, which will offer, according to Bersin, “benchmarks, tools, case studies, operational frameworks, and proven service models that define best-practice leadership development.”

And in case you aren’t quite sure about leadership development as a top priority, the Bersin study adds this: They also asked more than 700 HR and L&D managers to rank their top talent-driven challenges.

“These managers indicated that ‘filling gaps in the leadership pipeline’ (59 percent of respondents) was their number one challenge,” the study says, “with ‘creating a performance-driven culture”'(47 percent of respondents) and ‘difficulty filling key positions’ (36 percent of respondents) rounding out the top three talent challenges.”

High-Impact Leadership Development for the 21st Century is a big study if it needs to be broken into three parts, and after digging through Part 1, it’s clear that there is a lot to chew on here, particularly if you and your organization are concerned about where your next generation of leaders is going to come from.

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.