The National Learning Institute

Thought Leaders Category

Education in Australia

The Ranking Games – A Hunger to be First

February 7, 2017 No Comments

Jackson Rose ©2017

This article is written in response to Professor Steven Schwartz, chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority appearing on the 60 minutes TV show, 06/02/2017. It addresses the failures of the current Australian Education System to support young adults in their development, suggests some alternatives, and calls for changes to the current system.

Pitting students against one another in a competitive fashion may force some to rise to the challenge. However, for the majority of students the idea that their final year of school comes down to a direct competition with their peers is enough to dishearten them.

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June 11, 2014 No Comments

By Bob Selden and guest author Dr. Shaun A. Saunders @2014

Do practising managers have a clear idea of the path they need to travel to develop to their full potential? Or are they left to their own devices to find the best way home? We suggest some ways organisations can provide a clear route to develop managers into leaders – and avoid them falling down the proverbial “rabbit hole”.

The development of management theories has been characterised by differing beliefs about what managers do, how they should do it, and what associated traits and skills might be required for them to do so effectively.

The most important pre-twentieth century influence on management practices was the industrial revolution, which substituted machine power for human power (Nankervis, Compton & McCarthy 1999). This in turn set the stage for the birth of management science, with an attendant focus on measuring such inputs as job and work systems, production schedules, and productivity strategies.

This approach for managing the employer-employee relationship left little room for personality, emotion, or individual contribution from the shop-floor.  It also saw an increased focus on inputs (how and what the employee did), rather than outputs (what the employee achieved) which was a mainstay of the old craft system.  Indeed, the application of a systematic analysis to work emphasised routines, order and cost analysis and organisations were seen as tools for generating rational decisions and plans (Nankervis et al 1999).  It follows that managers were recognised and rewarded for ensuring things were done right (inputs) rather than looking for the right things to do (outputs) (Drucker 1983).

However, while there is evidence to suggest that the above practices may still be prevalent in for example, the USA (eg, Hall 1994) and Australia (Karpin 1995), there is continuing debate as to their suitability in the modern workplace (eg, Kreitner & Kinicki 1995; Hunt 2001) and what alternative approaches there might be.

One such alternative approach suggests that managers who focus more on outputs and place greater consideration on the personality, emotions and individual contribution of employees, are seen as leaders by their followers rather than mere managers and hence more effective (Reddin 2000).

There is however, much debate as to the differences between management and leadership per se (Nahavandi 2000).  In fact many scholars use the two interchangeably.  Hence, these issues (i.e. input focused management practices, and leadership vs. management) should be briefly examined before any discussion concerning contemporary management and leadership development initiatives within an organisational context.

What is Leadership?

While there is an abundance of definitions as to what constitutes both leadership and management, there are commonalities within each category.  For example, leadership is a group phenomenon (as there can be no leader without a follower), which uses influence to guide groups in a certain course to achieve goals.  Further, the presence of a leader and followers assumes some form of hierarchy (Nahavandi 2000).  Managers, by dint of their position, automatically have access to the element of hierarchy.

However, there are also differences.  A leader, might be described as someone who someone else accepts or takes responsibility for continually shaping and maintaining an effective culture within an organisation or other grouping of people, irrespective of their hierarchical position.  Managers, it could be argued, focus more on the maintenance of  the status quo, and might, when the tasks at hand require the efforts of other employees, do so more by virtue of their positional power than by the use of other influence processes (Saunders 2001a).

Leaders on the other hand, are said to achieve results because of who they are, not what they are, i.e. their position in the hierarchy (Selden 2008).

It’s been argued that leadership occurs at all levels of the organisation, not merely at the top.  In such a scenario, the essence of leadership is to create at least four conditions that encourage others to follow (Selden 2008):

  • A shared understanding of the environment – When this is evident to all members of the group, people respond, “We know what we face”.
  • A shared vision of where we are going – The leader is able to enunciate a vision that enables group members to say, “We know what we have to do”.
  • A shared set of organisational values – Group members share similar values, “We are in this together”.
  • A shared feeling of power – Group members have control and are responsible for achieving defined outputs, “We can do this”.

Following this argument, any manager can become an effective leader in the eyes of their followers by satisfactorily achieving these four shared conditions, all of which are outputs of the leader’s efforts.

What are the implications for the development of leaders and managers?

The topic maybe somewhat reminiscent of the mythical story of Alice in Wonderland (Dodgson 1865).  As Alice went on her adventures down the rabbit hole, she met many strange creatures and had some wonderful self-insights.  But Wonderland is an illogical place, nothing seems to make sense to Alice.  She starts to become very frustrated and confused.  In one such meeting, “Who are you?” asks the caterpillar . . . “I – I hardly know, Sir”, Alice responds …” just at present.  At least I know who I was when I got up this morning …”

Do managers feel much the same as Alice as they progress down the management development pathway?  A pathway that is at times organised into bite sized development events, but for the most part is a haphazard series of unrelated experiences.  McCauley (2003), found that the approach of many organisations is events-based rather than system or process based.

Despite the best efforts of many organisations, often managers are left to their own devices to make sense of an illogical land, learning from experience on the run. Although it could also be argued that sometimes such learning can be extremely insightful.

However, if organisational learning and development professionals are to fulfil their mission of ‘making other people look good’, they need to help the manager make sense of both their real world trial and error learning and the planned development activities organisations provide.

Some progress in this has been made over the last 20 years.  Hernez-Broome (Human Resource Planning, 2004 p24) report:

“Leadership development initiatives typically offer performance support and real world application of skills through training programs, coaching and mentoring, action learning, and developmental assignments.  Combining instruction with a real business setting helps people gain crucial skills and allows the organisations to attack relevant, crucial, real-time issues. The goal of leadership development ultimately involves action not knowledge.

Therefore, development today means providing people with opportunities to learn from their work rather than taking them away from their work to learn. It is critical to integrate those experiences with each other and with other developmental methods. State of the art leadership development now occurs in the context of ongoing work initiatives that are tied to strategic business imperatives.”

There are two issues that mitigate effective management and leadership development within organisations.

Firstly, many seem to concentrate on developing the behaviours, skills, competencies, capabilities and personality traits that are required of an effective leader/manager.  In other words, an input oriented approach.  This approach can be seen in the competency development movements of the 80s and early 90s in countries such as the UK, Australia, Canada and the management development research in the US at around the same time (e.g. Boyatzis 1982).  Despite the myriad research and ‘expert’ writings, we still do not have an agreed and defined set of management/leadership ‘skills’, that describe the ideal leader/manager, although a preliminary study of a cross-section of graduate business students by Saunders (2001b) suggested that self-esteem and self-monitoring might be two key attributes required to lead effectively.

Secondly, as we have argued, there is not an agreed definition of management and leadership.

The Learning & Development profession is one of the few professions where members cannot agree on two of the key components of their professional work.

How does this translate into reality?

Take the input oriented approach.  Other than being able to agree on exactly what the skills, competencies traits etc., are, the challenge for the aspiring manager is ‘How do I emulate that particular leadership/management skill/style?”

Some development activities have assisted with this challenge.  For instance, using well designed 360 degree feedback can provide managers with excellent benchmarks and feedback on their development.  These become particularly effective when used pre and post in an ongoing development process.  But they do have limitations.  One study suggests that managers’ skills may or may not have changed as a result of the process, but the definition of the required skills certainly did! (Rosti et al, 1998)

Help is at hand.  In a recent study Mumford (2007) suggests looking at the skills required of a manager’s position or job and job level, rather than at the manager.  This does not negate the need for the manager to look at developing his/her skills.  It does however, make it easier for both the organisation and the manager to identify exactly what those skills are in this particular organisation and in this context, at this particular time.  This has implications for those responsible for recruitment, career development, promotion and ultimately, the design of management development processes.

For example, in an extensive search of the literature and a study of over 1,000 junior, mid and senior level managers, Mumford et al identified four skill sets required at all levels of an organisation:

  • Cognitive: gathering and using information to make decisions.
  • Interpersonal skills: social skills relating to interacting with and influencing others (including self-perception and self-monitoring noted by Saunders 2001b. In turn, these would likely be moderated by an individual’s level of self-esteem, which was also a significant predictor of leadership effectiveness in Saunders’ pilot research ).
  • Business skills: for specific functional areas; managing material resources; operations analysis; management and application of personnel resources; managing financial resources.
  • Strategic skills: conceptual skills needed to take a systems perspective to understand complexity, deal with ambiguity and to effect influence in the organisation.


The extent to which these are required and applied, will vary depending on the manager’s level in the organisation.  The challenge, is to design development processes that enable managers at all levels to identify what these skills are at each level.  Then, provide developmental experiences for managers to reach their full potential.

Hence, while a leader at any given organisational level might be gifted in one or more traits, an output oriented developmental approach argues that using them effectively requires experience and exposure to appropriate and relevant organisational situations, not only to facilitate learning, but also to match skills and traits with the right environment for them.  Accordingly, employee development coaches must distinguish between the traits necessary for an individual’s current position, and those required for moving to a higher one.  For example, while being decisive and self-confident (i.e., the cognitive skill requirements in the figure above) may be important at lower organisational levels – and allow a junior manager or professional to adequately showcase her technical proficiencies – at higher levels, diplomacy and political and social sensitivity are likely to be more important.

Obviously, then, for career development initiatives to benefit both the organization and employees’ prospects for career progression, they need to be seen as a chain of strategically linked organizational-appropriate training scenarios and not disconnected events isolated from workplace reality.

Where does all this leave us with our management development challenge?

Firstly, management development needs to be seen and described as a pathway.  Not a series of unrelated events.

Secondly, management development initiatives need to assist the manager to identify the skills required at his or her level of the organization, and the extent to which they need to be achieved and applied at this time in this context.  Coupled with this is the need for a rigorous means of assessing individual competence and ways in which the manager might best achieve competence.

Thirdly, effective succession planning requires that managers be taught how to develop and implement strategies (based on the four shared output conditions) within their workplace that encourage others to follow them.  Similarly, managers need to be trained to be aware of the skill sets required for the next step in their own career progression, and how they might achieve competence in these.

Finally, the management development pathway needs to be transparent and owned by the people that matter most – the managers. This in turn necessitates a distinctive organisational culture of trust, which feeds straight back into preferred organisational leadership styles and associated behaviours, skill sets, and development initiatives.

It would be nice to think that managers were well aware of what is required of them to travel down the management development pathway, rather than like Alice, when asking directions of the cat found:

 ”But I don’t want to go among mad people.”
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

 Bob Selden Bob Selden, MD The National Learning Institute.  He’s the author of best-selling book “What To Do When You Become The Boss”
 Shaun A. Saunders Dr. Shaun A. Saunders, Consumer & Organisational Psychologist & Author, Newcastle, Australia.



Bob Selden, MD The National Learning Institute

Bob Selden on Good and Bad Bosses

March 18, 2014 No Comments

I was recently interviewed by James O’Loughlin, Sydney Radio 702 on “What distinguishes a good boss form a bad boss” Hear this short interview now.

By Bob Selden

The economy

How does Paper Money (or “fiat” currency) jeopardise our economy, and ultimately our existence?

February 2, 2013 3 Comments

By Daniel Jeffares ©2013 Fresh Insights

In this article, Daniel Jeffares addresses the issue of the ongoing GFC head-on in terms that are immediately and intuitively obvious to all.

Most people have a sense that all is not OK at the moment and they are resistant to taking action to address their concerns because nobody is being straight with them about the underlying dynamics of the unfolding crisis.

It is the uncertainty …

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Dennis Pratt

After Capitalism – then what?

August 25, 2012 6 Comments

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future” Niels Bohr

But speculation is fun, so could something like this one day come to pass?

After Capitalism – then what?

Dennis Pratt

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