In a recent opinion piece for ILM’s The Edge Online I discussed why leadership alone won’t solve every organisational problem. It’s clear that developing better leaders is a sure-fire way to improve organisational success. But that’s not all that is needed.

If leadership is seen as “the only way out of this mess” and so much leadership development fails to deliver the kind of change that is sought – where is it going wrong?

Leadership does not stand on its own. I have found a strong link between leadership and learning that needs to be understood so you don’t end up throwing money and resources into leadership development, only to end up wondering why the results are not quite as good as you promised the board.
The connection becomes more obvious when you add the middle link in the chain – engagement. People following a leader want to be part of something significant, something they would perhaps not wholeheartedly support were it not for the leader.

Given that a leader’s vision is different to the status quo it will involve change, which will usually require new skills and new ways of doing things. Change requires learning, so participating in a leader’s vision will almost always involve learning. When people are engaged, they will learn in order to participate.

When people learn new things in order to pursue a goal, and the learning makes the pursuit of that goal easier, the goal seems closer and more attainable. The more you learn the better you are able to contribute meaningfully to a leader’s goal, the more engaged with that goal you will become. It is exciting being part of something bigger than you, and being able to contribute to it.

On the flipside, maybe the employee isn’t given the tools or opportunity to learn what they need to know in order to participate. Or, they find the barriers to implementing the learning are high. The desire to go for the goal fades away, and in many cases is replaced by cynicism in response to any further attempts to win engagement. The employee feels unsupported by the organisation and by their manager.

Lack of opportunity to learn, or to apply learning becomes a restraining force on engagement. If the ability to engage is restricted in some way, the leader will have no followers and is no longer a leader.

We can see now the interdependence of leadership and learning and how learning can impact the effects of leadership. It can act as an accelerator or a brake on the primary output of leadership, which is engagement.

I strongly believe that if your organisation’s learning environment, both formal and informal, is not functioning well, pouring resources into developing leadership will never have its potential impact. Organisations need to ensure that it is easier to follow the leaders, than not to follow.

My best wishes, Paul

Paul Matthews – Speaker/Author/Consultant on Informal Learning, Management and Leadership.