Helping leaders to do leadership, in an uncertain world

By Professor David Denyer & Professor Kim Turnbull James



These are unprecedented times, and very few business leaders can, hand on heart, claim that they saw them coming. From Brexit to protectionism, and from mass migration to the financial crisis, things weren’t supposed to turn out like this.

Unfortunately, they have. It is these and other changes which are forcing leaders to review, rethink, redesign, and reinvent how their organisations achieve their goals.

Yet these leaders can’t determine how this should be done in isolation. For in this new age, the work of leadership is marked by ever-greater cross‑functional collaboration, and highly participative environments in which individuals at all levels take, and feel, personal responsibility for their combined output.


But paradoxically, such collaboration is made harder by the same conditions that bring it about.

During times of disruptive change, people want a ‘strong’ leader to provide answers, outline a compelling vision, and share an unambiguous plan of action; the underlying belief being that change requires effective individual leaders.

So, it isn’t a surprise that much of what we regard as leadership development would be better described as leader development, which focuses on the styles, traits, actions and competencies of the individuals that are assigned leadership roles formally.

There is an obvious flaw here. Changed organisational circumstances require changes in organisational practices, and yet the most common response is either to change the leaders or to develop individuals for newly created leader positions.

Leadership practices

We believe that there is a better way.

Rather than changing the leaders, we believe that organisations should invest in helping organisations to do leadership differently.

A mind-set shift from leader‑driven change to leadership‑enabled change lies at the heart of our approach to working with clients on intractable, messy problems. We start with the problem, not the leaders.

It’s an approach that has been honed, and informed, by interviewing senior executives from a diverse mix of organisations actively involved in dealing with complex and uncertain problems, while at the same time talking to thousands of managers on our executive development courses.

As a result, we have identified seven leadership practices that we consider to be central to dealing with intractable, messy problems.

Practices are very different from competences. Competences are attributed to a person, who can then exercise these within any workplace. This leadership results in those individuals being placed into difficult situations to turn things around. Practices only exist in the collective habits, routines, processes and culture of the organisation. They do not belong to an individual. Practices are embedded in collective approaches to dealing with challenges and not in an individual leader’s style of working. Our approach to leadership development is to help the organisation change how it meets challenges, rather than staring with individual change.

Room to grow

In addition, these seven specific leadership practices are supported by two ‘meta’ leadership practices, which facilitate and encourage them.

The first, collaborative leadership learning, is about developing the conditions in which collective leadership work can best be experienced.

The second, enabling a ‘holding’ environment, is about creating particular ‘safe spaces’ in which difficulties and uncertainty are viewed as learning opportunities.

Practical lessons

The world isn’t going to get any less uncertain, any time soon. Unpredictable change, we suspect, will continue to be the norm.

The lessons we draw out are:

  • starting with the messy, adaptive challenge, not the leaders
  • collaborative learning as opposed to a leader learning agenda
  • the paradox that you need commitment from the top, despite de-emphasising top-down leadership
  • this is not about leadership models and frameworks

This is the view from Cranfield, though we don’t claim that it is necessarily the best, or the only opinion on the subject. It is simply one that we have found to be grounded in real-world experience, based on the work we have done with individuals and organisations aspiring to engage more flexible and collaborative leaders and leadership models.

To read more about it, download our full article.

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