Even the best and brightest can fail and falter.

In spite of intelligence and drive, expertise and experience, many top executives arrive in their high-impact roles without being fully prepared to meet contemporary challenges, according to the editors of a new book on executive development.

Businesses and institutions around the globe seek to innovate, adapt to change and forge a path to success. Yet almost two-thirds of change initiatives fail and turnover and turmoil at the top levels of leadership are commonplace.

What is going on in the process of developing senior leaders that prevents them from effectively facing the demands of today’s leadership?

In the book Extraordinary Leadership: Addressing the Gaps in Senior Executive Development, editors Kerry A. Bunker, Douglas T. Hall, and Kathy E. Kram have worked with a wide range of authors to address the “powerful learning gaps in executive development that can derail otherwise talented and successful managers.”

Today’s senior executives — as well as those in the leadership pipeline — must master complex and ambiguous business demands, but they must also face the human and relational challenges associated with leading in such an environment.

“More than ever before, successful leadership hinges on learning agility and the experience necessary to navigate and lead others though complex situations,” the editors write.

“It’s not about the perfect pedigree or knowing all the answers anymore. It’s about resiliency and openness. Sheer intellect, savvy business sense, bottom-line focus, and solid management skills are necessary, but they are clearly not sufficient for meeting the demands of leadership in the 21st century.”

Many top executives, though successful, have missed out on the more “elusive factors of leadership effectiveness” that have been overlooked by traditional development programs, systems, and mindsets. As a result, their developmental gaps are likely to involve:

  • Interpersonal relationship challenges;
  • Difficulty adapting to rapid change and spiraling complexity;
  • Problems partnering and sharing responsibility and accountability; and
  • A leadership style that not only fails to inspire and motivate the masses but may actually foster a culture of fear or risk aversion.

What can be done to re-invest in top leaders and build much-needed leadership capacity in our organizations?

The 20 scholars and practitioners who contributed to Extraordinary Leadership (including Peter Vaill, Naomi Marrow, Jay Conger, and Frances Hesselbein) evaluate the gap and offer solutions in 4 key areas:

1. The gap within: Intrapersonal learning and development issues within an individual.

2. The gap between: Interpersonal and relational issues that operate between individuals.

3. The gap in the system: Organizational issues that operate among systems, organizations, groups, and individuals.

4. The gap at the institutional level: External and contextual issues such as cultural differences, dramatic change, paradigm shifts, and economic fluctuations.

A tailored approach to assessment, feedback, and development — with opportunities for reflection and experiential learning — is required to help individual leaders identify and overcome their personal gaps.

Guidance and support are generally required and may take the form of a professional coach, a savvy HR advocate, a mentor in senior management, or some combination of those roles.

“We realize that the world we now live in is more complex than ever before, and it is ever changing. As a consequence, our approaches to leadership development must offer certain opportunities for leaders to learn, reflect, experiment and dare to be vulnerable,” write Bunker, Hall, and Kram.

“Only with such opportunities will individuals, groups and organizations generate the capacities to effectively respond and adapt to changing conditions as they unfold.”

This article is adapted from the Introduction to the book Extraordinary Leadership: Addressing the Gaps in Senior Executive Development, published by the Center for Creative Leadership and Jossey-Bass.

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