Interview with Sebastian Salicru on New Trends and Directions in Leadership Development – Integral Version


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    This is the integral version of the interview: for the short version click here.

    Hi, Sebastian. Thank you so much for sharing with our readers your knowledge and experience. Sebastian, you have an impressive CV, which includes leadership interventions with clients from all over the world, scientific publications, conferences, and two Masters of Science:  one in Leadership & Creativity, and another in Management Research. However, I think you are the best person to describe yourself to our readers.

    1) So, who is Sebastian Salicru and what is his story?

    I’m CatalanSalicru2REPRO__1450953642_94.37.100.194 (Barcelona, Catalonia in Spain) by birth, but I moved to Australia as a young man—where I’ve lived most of my adult life (34 years). I completed my undergraduate and postgraduate studies in Psychology at Curtin University, a Masters degree in Management Research at UWA Business School in Australia, and another Masters degree in Creativity and Change Leadership at SUNY, USA. In addition, over the years I also completed various professional development programs in the UK at Cranfield University and The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, and in the USA at the Harvard Kennedy School.

    Early in my career, I worked in the area of employee assistance programs (EAPs), and as a trainer/facilitator with various international management consulting firms. With a strong passion for learning and development, this was my training ground where I gained extensive experience in organisational development (OD) working across sectors and industries. In recent years, I specialised in leadership development and executive coaching, and have been very fortunate to work in northern and southern Europe, the USA, the UAE, Singapore and China. This has given me a truly global exposure and understanding of cultural differences, and the importance for global organisation to manage culture as a risk.

    In 2009, I began a PhD. Since then, having developed a special interest in the theory of the ‘psychological contract’ and leadership, I have been researching, writing and presenting at national and international conferences and industry events on the latest advancements in leadership development. My latest publications include an article in the Journal of Business Strategy in 2014, and two book chapters on global leadership this year.

    Currently, I run my own professional practice in Sydney, where I live with my wife Lisa, who is from Chicago. Something about me that not many people know is that I like sports cars, boxing and kick-boxing, and vigilante movies. Paradoxically, I’m also a very spiritual person and practice meditation. My favourite author is Eckhart Tolle and I enjoyed his 2005 book, ‘A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose’. I also like simple but tasty food—I love a nice piece of well-cooked crusty tomato rubbed bread with jamon serrano (prosciutto)!

    2) As a business psychologist, what do you believe are the top contributions psychology brings to organisations across the world?

    I would say that the main contribution of psychology to organisations is that it provides a unique perspective of how individuals, groups and systems work. This includes a rich legacy of research, theory and practice, and of course delivering real outcomes to industry and communities around the world.

    3) What are some of the major challenges in the leadership industry we face at the moment?

    At the highest level, the single most critical challenge faced by the leadership industry is that so far, we have been unable to build the leadership capacity we need to move successfully into the future.

    Here’s some of the evidence that supports this broad statement. According to the Gallup-Purdue Index 2015 Report, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work. Further, The Global Leadership Index, which reflects the current thinking of a community of over 1,500 of the world’s foremost global experts, indicates that 86% of respondents believe that the world is currently experiencing a leadership crisis. Not surprisingly, citizens around the world lack confidence in public and private sector leaders, and organisations are worried they do not have enough good leaders.

    Why is this the case? As I see it, there are five inter-related reasons that contribute to this situation, with their corresponding challenges in moving forward and that build on each other, which I may say present great opportunities for psychologists working in this area.

    The first reason we are finding it difficult to build true leadership capacity is that we have been too attached to the ‘competency-based movement’, which has dominated the industry during the last decades. It has been referred to as ‘a repeating refrain that continues to offer an illusory promise to rationalize and simplify the processes of selecting, measuring and developing leaders, yet only reflects a fragment of the complexity that is leadership’ (Bolden & Gosling, 2006).

    In fact, the limitations of the competency movement in leadership development were highlighted some time ago by Zenger and Folkman (2009) in their landmark study – The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Manager Into Great Leaders. Yet to date, most leadership development frameworks still remain competency-based. Interestingly, recent research published the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), confirms the argument that competency models are incomplete, too simplistic, and inadequate in today’s business environment. Of course, this does not mean that competencies are irrelevant or should be ignored completely.

    Coupled with this, a growing body of research recently popularised by Petry (2014) – also from CCL, points towards the need to practice ‘vertical development’ as opposed to ‘horizontal development’, in leadership development and executive coaching. While horizontal development is related to technical learning and is competency-based, which is useful when problems are clearly defined and techniques for solving them are known, vertical development, in contrast, refers to the mental and emotional-staged process individuals progress through to make sense of the world. Hence, vertical development promotes the transformational learning and the practice of ‘adaptive leadership’ to deal with ‘adaptive challenges’.

    Many of the current (and more so future) challenges faced by leaders across sectors and industries globally are ‘adaptive challenges’ (e.g., globalisation, hyper-complexity, ageing population, migration, increased access to knowledge and education, urbanisation and the disruptions caused by new technologies). Adaptive challenges are very distinct from technical challenges. While technical challenges can be solved by the knowledge of experts, tackling adaptive challenges (or ‘wicked’ problems) requires the altering of human dimensions such as pace of adjustment, tolerance for conflict, uncertainty and risks, as well as the resilience of the culture and networks of authority and relationships.

    So, the challenge here is that while competencies and horizontal development still matter, in moving forward—and given the fact that, above all, leadership is a relational phenomenon—we need to conceptualise leadership more as a relational process and use more relational measures of leadership. From this perspective, leadership effectiveness depends on the quality of relationships, and the engagement leaders are able to establish with their followers or stakeholders. This includes the importance of leaders’ ethical behaviour, integrity, credibility and ability to build trust. Hence, the relevance of using ‘leadership psychological contracts’, as a guiding framework in leadership development. This is an area I have been pioneering during the last seven years—I published a related article in the Journal of Business Strategy last year.

    The second reason we have been unable to build leadership capacity in moving forward is that we have been stuck with doing mainly ‘leader’ development only, as opposed to doing ‘leadership’ development. Explaining this distinction in detail is perhaps beyond the scope of this interview. If any of your readers wish to better understand the difference between the two, I suggest they refer to David Day’s work [Day, D.V. (2001). ‘Leadership development: A review in context’. The Leadership Quarterly, 11(4), 581–613].

    In brief, the challenge here is to shift from a ‘leadership’ development only focus (the ‘heroic’ or ‘lone ranger’ leadership approach, where the leader is the main protagonist), towards a ‘post-heroic’ leadership perspective. This includes moving towards more to ‘collective leadership’ and ‘shared’, ‘distributive’ or ‘collaborative’ models of leadership.

    From this perspective, I like use the term ‘developing leadership capacity’, which refers to the organisation, in contrast to the leadership knowledge, skills or competencies of the individual. To a large degree, this perspective builds on ‘followership theory’, in which followers play a far more active role in influencing leaders, as well as allowing themselves to be influenced.

    The third challenge, which I would actually call an imperative, relates to the fact that increasingly, the leaders of the future will be global leaders. Global leaders will be required to influence individuals and groups (who represent diverse cultural/political/institutional systems) to help achieve each of their corporation’s global ambitions, while managing multiplicities, tackling huge challenges, grappling with instability and navigating ambiguity. To deal effectively with such complex global challenges, global leaders must develop a global mindset (GLM), which includes cultural intelligence or intercultural capability, hence the growing need for global leadership development and the emerging research in this field. It’s important to remember that, as we now live in increasingly multicultural societies, GLMs are also relevant domestically to manage effectively workplace diversity—an important driver of innovation.

    The fourth challenge, which builds on the previous ones, relates to a greater need for creative thinking and innovation. The ability of modern organisations to innovate continuously in relation to products, services or processes is critical to both organisational success and long-term organisational survival. As a result, innovative workplace behaviour (IWB) has been recognised as paramount in today’s uncertain global economy, and leader behaviour has been identified as an important predictor of IWB.

    The fifth and final challenge is the need to conduct more impact evaluations of the leadership development initiatives being implemented. We know that while 86% of organisations evaluate their leadership development activities at the level of participants’ reactions (satisfaction), only 11% evaluate at the organisational level, and only 3% assess the ROI (return on investment) or ROE (return on expectations). This is a major gap or deficiency across industries and sectors around the world.

    Despite this evidence, impact evaluations beyond the basic level of collecting participants’ satisfaction levels captured at the end of the program via the popular ‘happy sheets’, are scarce and poorly conducted because they are believed to be too difficult to do. I was shocked when I recently asked the vice president of HR of a 35,000 strong well-known global financial institution how they were doing leadership and coaching impact evaluations and he told me this: ‘Well, doing an evaluation is too difficult!’ While I’m not denying or diminishing the fact that conducting an impact evaluation is hard work (as are most good organisational interventions that make a difference)—and I know this because I have actually done it—I believe this ‘it’s all too hard’ idea is a myth and it is just a good excuse for not doing it. But what concerns me the most is that it’s a huge missed opportunity for the organisations themselves!

    Conducting evaluations enables us to find out what actually happened as a result of implanting a leadership development program. This includes being able to answer critical questions, such as: How has participants’ transfer of learning from the program positively affected their behaviour? How has participants’ new learned behaviours affected their performance? How has participants’ performance affected the business? What was the estimated ROI or ROE the business/organisation received from the program? Did the program deliver what it was intended to deliver? If so, how and why did it work; if not, why didn’t it work? What constitutes leadership development best practice programs? Lastly, what, specifically, do organisations need to consider when designing, implementing and evaluating best practice programs that have a positive and significant long-term impact on organisational performance?

    In fact, it is well-documented in the literature that conducting an effective evaluation is an important component of leadership development itself. This is because evaluation promotes critical thinking and self-reflection, and enquiries into how the program has influenced the achievement of organisational goals. We also know that executives/leaders who practice reflection are likely to learn from their experience more deeply and more quickly.

    An additional benefit of conducting an evaluation is that a well-conducted evaluation can become a good case study for any organisation that wishes to showcase its efforts to develop its people, to recognise program sponsors (e.g., senior executives) and relevant program organisers (e.g. L&D or HR departments), as well as the program participants themselves, and to collectively and/or publicly celebrate their achievements. Hence, a sensible approach for conducting a good evaluation is to do it with the aim of writing a case study.

    In summary then, the major challenges we currently face in the leadership industry are moving towards the practice of ‘vertical development’, as opposed to ‘horizontal development’, and to use more relational measures of leadership by practising more ‘leadership’ development as opposed to ‘leader’ development only. This doesn’t mean neglecting the latest or the use of competency models, but rather building on it. This, in turn, also requires a shift towards more ‘global leadership’ and ‘collective leadership’ approaches, which emphasise GLMs, creative thinking and innovation, as critical leadership development outcomes. The final challenge and opportunity is the widespread lack of conducting program impact evaluations. Again, I wish to emphasise that these gaps constitute across industries and sectors around the world, and of course, it also represents a great opportunity for psychologists to contribute.

    Should your readers be interested in a more detailed account of these challenges, they can access Chapter 10 of my book, LEADERSHIP 2050: Critical Challenges, Key Contexts and Emerging Trends, which explains what kinds of leaders the world will need over the next thirty-five years. Incidentally, Leadership 2050 is a finalist in the USA Department of Leadership Studies 2015 Outstanding Leadership Book Award, and can also be purchased via Amazon.

    4) Why do we need to address our efforts to improve leadership for the future?

    Well, it’s very simple. Because this is a challenge of great proportions and impact, as Timothy Mack—founder of AAI Foresight, and former President and CEO of the World Future Society, said: ‘The future of leadership is the future of humanity’.

    Leadership means different things to different people and experts, as there still is no agreed definition. In fact, it has been said that there are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept. Leadership encompasses many talents and skills. Also, there are different styles of leadership, and there are different factors affecting how leaders are regarded.

    Nonetheless, despite these differences, leadership is one of the ‘Big Social Concepts’. Actually, it is of the same size and importance as ‘Access to Health Care’, ‘Quality of Education’, ‘Social Justice’, ‘War or Peace’, ‘Corporate Governance’, ‘Business Ethics’, ‘Sustainability’ or ‘Future of the Earth’.

    5) What contributions do you think the scientific research can give to real world leadership?

    Firstly, let me say that I’m not entirely comfortable with the expression ‘real world leadership’, in that I don’t think a dichotomy really exists. I also believe that it can be used as a euphemism to dismiss something people don’t understand, don’t like to hear, or simply disagree with.

    Having said this, and following on from my answers to the previous questions—I think they really have addressed this one to a large extent—scientific research can greatly inform us and change the way we think about leadership and leadership development. For example, research sheds light into what’s really working and what’s not, and under what conditions or contexts. Leadership is a very contextual phenomenon (e.g., business, NGOs, government, history, political climate, regulations, education, cultures).

    6) Do you wish there could be more collaboration between scientists and practitioners?

    Yes, this would be nice. But you know, I think that we—psychologists—can sometimes be the worst collaborators of all. I’m being critical here because I recall from my undergraduate studies that it was always emphasised how good and unique we (psychologists) are; but very little was said, for example, about what we could learn from other disciplines, and how we could lead this collaboration effort.

    Having said that, I have to admit that the popular ‘scientist-practitioner model’, which integrates science (or theory) and practice was also taught. I also know for a fact—and I should include myself here—that many psychologists adhere to this model. 

    7) What state would you say the ‘art of leadership development’ is in at the present moment? What evidence do we have?

    To a large degree, I think I already addressed this in question 2. Nonetheless, let me quote again top leadership researchers such as David Day and colleagues, who concluded recently that despite 25 years of growth in leadership development programs, the latest research indicates the field is still relatively immature (Day, Fleenor, Atwater, Sturm, & McKee, 2014). Similarly, this is what Laura Leviton – a distinguished applied social researcher, evaluator and senior adviser for evaluation at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, says about the subject: “After hundreds of studies and many years of research, we still find ourselves playing with pebbles on the shore of this vast sea of subject matter”.

    8) What practical tips would you like to share with other professionals who aspire to improve leadership skills within their own organisations?

    Two things come to mind that link with my ongoing discussion. The first tip is to use highly experiential approaches to leadership development. In doing so, and in line with my previous comments, I recommend to always keep updated on the latest developments (e.g., moving beyond competency only approaches, exploring whether they are using a balanced approach between ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ development, etc.).

    The second tip follows from the first, and is to check how your interventions/programs measure against best industry practice. Doing this requires organisations to be proactive about conducting impact evaluations and writing case studies. The best way to do this, of course, is by engaging the services of an independent and qualified researcher/consultant.

    9) What message(s) would you like to offer to decision makers who read this interview?

    My main message for decision makers (meaning those individuals who procure leadership solutions) is this: Be critical consumers of the leadership development solutions you purchase from your providers. By this, I mean you should always question what approaches will be used and why, and partner with your providers to ensure that you (the stakeholders and the organisation you represent) receive what’s expected.

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