The Art of Executive Leadership Development

Much of today’s leadership commentary, specifically that relating to senior executives and prominent leaders, often focuses on the personal challenges and successes experienced whilst at the pinnacle of their careers. However, too few reflect sufficiently on the importance of the journey, the developmental process, the many challenges experienced and lessons learnt during their formative years as they moved up the management ladder.

After a series of discussions held with a number of highly regarded business and governmental leaders, I’m reminded about the importance they placed on the executive learnership phase of their careers, which many regarded as being a tipping point of their respective journey to the top. The time spent and the experiences gained in the initial stages of their careers, they concurred, were what ultimately determined both their own success and that of the organisation’s they lead.

It is becoming increasingly evident, to those in leadership positions across all sectors of commerce and industry, that there is a critical shortage of eligible executive talent in South Africa. They also recognise the obvious risks associated with trying to embark on a ‘quick-fix’ solution by appointing external expertise that in all probability may not be au-fait with either local industry or company dynamics.

Recognising that this critical aspect of corporate leadership development has been a constant problem, leaders must then ask the question: What can business do to ameliorate this chronic shortage of executive leadership talent?

I have frequently come across organisations that whilst they continue to promote functionally competent managers with proven technical competence, they are also inadvertently setting them up for failure. This is due not only to the diversity of leadership challenges they will encounter in today’s dynamic business environment, but more so because they only have had limited exposure to real life leadership and general management challenges.

In our complex and fast paced contemporary business environment, new levels of management skills, entrepreneurship and leadership are essential. One has only to recognise the diverse range of challenges a newly promoted executive will encounter during their first six months, ranging from intervention and leadership in unfamiliar functional areas, to making strategically important decisions that could substantially alter the strategic direction of the company.

The list of possible scenarios that face a newly appointed executive early on will be wide ranging indeed. So if we acknowledge these challenges in our hyper-paced environment, we also have to acknowledge the urgent need to identify, develop and maintain an open pipeline of skilled and well prepared leaders from within the organisations.

Effective leadership development requires a dual responsibility, involving both the young career contenders who have the necessary skills and desire to fulfil a critical leadership role and enlightened business leaders who recognise the value of inculcating a leadership culture within their organisations. In other words, building an effective leadership pipeline is a combination that relies equally on the desire, efforts and outputs of the junior executive, as well as the far-sighted visions and actions of those in senior leadership positions.

A senior executive in our organisation once pointed out that many senior managers do not appear to grasp the concept or the art of executing an effective executive “leadership” development programme, and in many instances confuse “management” development with “leadership” development.

Sadly, many executives see the function of ‘executive development’ as either a way to get various laborious projects or tasks performed by aspirant managers, or simply as a corporate responsibility to send a variety of individuals on obligatory tax deductible leadership and management courses.

Unfortunately these ad-hoc actions cannot adequately prepare emerging talent for future management roles or the diverse challenges of leadership. Neither will it inspire individuals to develop a deeper sense of leadership curiosity, or a personal desire to expand their horizons beyond functional expertise.

In the formative years of my career I was fortunate enough to work closely with a number of experienced and innovative executives who made it their business over a period of time to expose me to real life strategic and operational leadership challenges, often inviting me to join in on various internal and external meetings that were unrelated to my position at the time.

I was able to actively engage in theoretical and practical leadership discussions covering a variety of subjects including examples of what constitutes great leadership competencies. In many instances these discussions were redirected to cover personal experiences, challenges and visions of the future. This type of interaction exposed me to their applied knowledge and I found myself in a position of consciously absorbing a myriad of factors and topics that I had not previously recognised as being important. This new learning experience resulted in a deep personal desire on my part to actively gain knowledge in more than just functional expertise, but rather to develop a comprehensive leadership competency – and this to me is truly ‘the art of executive leadership development’.

From this unique personal experience and insight I was inspired to facilitate the identification and cultivation of aspirant high-energy individuals in the lower levels of our companies’ leadership pipeline and to assist in building a leadership pipeline that will help to institute a corporate leadership culture which I’m sure will in the future enable our organisation to respond rapidly to changes and new opportunities.

But it must be remembered that the art of executive leadership development is a dual responsibility, and my advice to young aspirant executives is to adhere to the philosophy that the decisions one takes at the outset will largely set out the path of your future returns. The importance of an appropriate leadership development programme in your formative years will largely determine the course of your career and your future role as a leader. So seek guidance and advice to facilitate your journey as you graduate through the various stages, from managing yourself to managing managers, to managing leaders and eventually to leading leaders.

As an aspirant leader you will need to clearly understand the difference between management and leadership, and to clearly distinguish between the two, whilst appreciating that the two are inseparable. Think beyond your own position and work out how you as a leader would realistically deal with specific situations so that you can essentially train yourself to become “leadership fit”.

However, it is only when your personal energy, drive and curiosity about leadership makes you realize ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, that you can truly set in motion your personal development journey and plan the necessary steps to be taken in your transition from being just a manager to becoming a true leader.

Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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