Corporations have and continue to play a key role in the journeys of many leaders. For example, a glimpse at the emerging leadership cohort in India will show how many started their careers in talent rich companies such as Tata or Hindustan Unilever.
The same is true of the USA where it is said that more CEO’s are GE graduates than graduates of Harvard Business School. In Europe the ‘talent factories’ of Unilever, Shell and Nokia have had a profound impact on the lives of many leaders. When these ‘talent factories’ are missing – as has historically been the case in China, then it can take decades to provide the context for development.
In the WEF we have distinguished between the Outer and the Inner leadership journey. The ‘outer journey’ creates the skills and capabilities to do a leader’s job, and many corporations are great at this – their capacity to engage people in complex global tasks and invest in learning means that most people come to the role of a leader with the requisite skills. My view is that typically the corporate environment can create the breadth of experience that enables leaders to learn how to manage complex stakeholders, or to build purposeful work. So where there is no question that well run corporations are great at the leader’s ‘outer journey’, what about the ‘inner journey’?
The ‘Inner Journey’ takes a leader to deep insight that helps them to discover their authenticity and provides the resilience so crucial for judgment under pressure? Here, I think the corporation is often a poor crucible for development. Here is why:
Hyper-Homogeneity: look around any high potential group and what is really striking is often how similar they are to each other. Often they are of the same nationality, but even if they are not they will have similar mannerisms, work styles, ways of looking at the world. Often the selection process for high potential roles is so well tuned that it filters out any diversity. This hyper homogeneity rapidly leads to ‘group think’ and also a certain weakness in spotting the counter intuitive
Extreme Work Pressure: one of the defining realities of corporate life is the sheer and unrelenting pressure many potential leaders are under. Constantly barraged by endless e-mails, spending weekends travelling, answering the phone throughout the night. These are all the symptoms of a globally connected world. This pressure affects their personal life, making it more and more difficult to create deep relationship with others – be they friends, partners or children. The pressure also removes any of the opportunities for reflection and conversation that we believe is so important to the leader’s inner journey. So as the muscle of the ‘outer journey’ become ever strong, those of the ‘inner journey’ atrophy.
Focus on Power: in many corporations the currency of leadership is power. It is positional power that creates the legitimacy for behaviours and provides the cover for action. Power is also a barrier to the open and deep feedback that can be so crucial to personal learning.
So, whilst corporations can be crucial to providing the setting for the ‘outer journey’, I believe that a combination of hyper-homogeneity, extreme work pressure and a focus on power makes them often poor settings for the ‘inner journey’. Many of the executives tasked with leadership development within corporations are well aware of this challenge. They can see that too many of their current leaders do not have the authenticity and depth that will increasingly be important for the future. What is less clear is how this can be solved.