The future of management development


In a rapidly changing and ambiguous business world, the techniques used to help managers learn how to lead effectively need to be constantly evolving. Narendra Laljani and Kai Peters look at how management development needs to change to ensure it is fit for the future.

Added on 15 July 2016 by Narendra Laljani,Kai Peters

Future of management development

As individuals and organizations, we are all captives of our own personal and collective experiences. We therefore project the past onto the future: “generals always fight the last war”. By doing so, we fall into the trap of imagining that the same set of circumstances, the same resources, the same technologies and the same people will reappear for a second act.

Even when we are not projecting the past on the future, we often use the systems and approaches which we have been using for decades or in some cases centuries without questioning whether they remain fit for purpose in the future. This path dependency is largely human nature. Neuroscience research has shown that we are comfortable with the knowledge that we have, with the patterns that we recognize and with the expectations that we therefore set. This is of course, sensible and logical for many situations – if you see a lion, your memory recall automatically makes you run, and run at least more quickly than others do.

For some situations, however, path dependency is a formidable trap which prevents you from taking the time, and expending the often extensive energy required to look at the world with “fresh eyes”. In this article, we will do our best to apply these “fresh eyes” to the skills and abilities managers and leaders will require in order to be able to cope with new challenges, and the rethinking required around education generally and management development specifically.

Once upon a time, classic management textbooks suggested that the work of managers is to “plan, organize, direct, and control”¹. Such notions now seem antiquated, and would be amusing were it not for the fact that there is a human tendency to seek simple answers. In a complex world, simplicity is seductive, and simplification tools (which abound in the world of education) become dangerous when applied to strategic issues and problems because they apply a simple structure to an unstructured situation. What then are the implications for managers, and management development?

“Complicate yourselves” is the battle cry offered by Weick², suggesting that managers need to be able to see and understand organizational events and behaviors from several perspectives, rather than a single one. With such significant trends as digital disruption, globalization, the need for sustainable business models, knowledge work and demographic shifts which are outlined in greater detail in other pieces in this journal, having a narrow framework is simply insufficient. The need for multiple lenses and perspectives is recognized by CEOs. In a recent study³ carried out with 200 CEO respondents from around the world, 76% thought it important for senior leaders in their own organizations to have the mindset, skills and abilities to lead in a holistic manner, yet only 8% believed that these skills were present at the moment. There is, therefore, a clear leadership deficit.

We suggest that in the future, managers will require capabilities in four clusters:

Contextual mastery

We believe that all management is deeply contextual. By context we mean a unique configuration of external (for example, competitive setting and life cycle) and internal environments (for example, culture and systems). In effect, a context is a type of situation wherein particular structures, relationships, processes, and competitive settings can be found⁴. There are a variety of important concepts of organization – strategy, the leader, process, structure, systems, culture, power, and style, which combine to form the contexts of organizations. Understanding the context, and being sensitive to it, gives leaders credibility. However, understanding is not sufficient in itself: leaders must also challenge the context, and the paradigms and world views which characterize it, and explore how it might be changed.

Behavioral complexity

Responding to complex demands in an uncertain and volatile environment requires managers to perform a wide array of leadership functions in organizations. They must build trusted relationships with a diverse range of people at different levels, and mobilize, motivate, engage and collaborate with, and influence them. Being effective across a range of situations and time horizons requires of managers not only “the ability to perceive the needs and goals of a constituency but also the ability to adjust one’s personal approach to group action accordingly”⁵. Behavioral complexity reflects the idea that managers who have a broad “bandwidth” and can tailor their style, message, language and behavior to the demands of the task, situation and role, will be more effective than managers who are relatively inelastic. A key premise is that the more complex a manager’s behavioral repertoire, the more likely it is that the manager can respond effectively to the challenges at hand.


Making the right choices in the face of conflicting processes, contending opposites, and incomplete information requires the exercise of judgement.

Paradoxes are a central feature of modern managerial life. Managers must deliver in the short term and in the long term. They must give autonomy, but also ensure alignment. They must lead change, but also provide stability and continuity. All these require conflicting actions. Numerous strategy and organization researchers have pointed to the significant paradoxes that managers must work with. Paradoxes are not problems that must be solved, but rather opposing positions that must be held meaningfully at the same time. For example, Mintzberg and Quinn⁴ emphasize the need to reconcile change and continuity. The manager must be a “pattern recognizer”, with the ability to sense when to exploit established strategies, and when to encourage new strains to displace the old. Jonas et al⁶ found that effective executives must “simultaneously embody the status quo and question it”.


Self-efficacy may be defined as an individual’s belief in his or her capability to organize and execute the courses of action required to attain desired performance levels. Psychologists suggest that it is an important variable that affects leaders performance. Self-efficacy affects the thoughts, feelings and actions of individuals in several significant ways. According to Bandura’s seminal work⁷, people with high self-efficacy approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered, rather than as threats to be avoided. They set themselves challenging goals and remain committed to them in the face of adversity. By contrast, people with low self-efficacy have low aspirations and are reluctant to take on difficult tasks. They demonstrate weak commitment to goals and are likely to abandon them if achievement proves difficult. They attribute unsatisfactory performance to deficiencies in their own aptitude. As a result, it does not require much failure for them to lose faith in their capabilities and they may suffer from stress and depression.

"The only thing that gets in the way of my learning is my education".

Albert Einstein

So how does development really happen - and what does learning that goes beyond education look like?

At a base level, the purpose of learning and development is to develop cognitive and emotional maturity which allows an individual to be as aware and as thoughtful as possible about the consequences of their actions.

"Organizations must learn how to plan, and plan how to learn".

Floyd and Wooldridge

In this new landscape, how can organizations best develop their best assets? We believe that in the future, management development will need to address seven key dilemmas. While these are often presented as choices, in our experience each supports and underpins the other, and it is therefore useful to consider how to integrate the elements of each dilemma effectively. The seven key dilemmas are discussed in the full article:

  • Individual and organization
  • Cognitive and behavioral
  • Action and reflection
  • Theory and practice
  • Teaching and facilitation
  • Intellectual and emotional experiences
  • Formal and informal learning

In conclusion, the world is developing around us, and creating new challenges. Disruptive technology, globalization, demographic dynamics, new social contracts and the knowledge economy are changing not only our ways of working, but also our entire lives. Coping with these developments, and effectively engaging with them, calls for the skills to accept ambiguity and complexity and to use humility and dialogue to guide judgment. An uncertain and volatile environment requires managers to perform a wide range of leadership functions.

Developing these skills is not easy as one must balance a number of dilemmas without falling victim to indecision and inaction, while embracing development processes that are influential, but go beyond traditional modes of delivery. Effective management development interventions can help create the individual skill set and organizational capability needed to succeed in the decades ahead, and is therefore a crucial driver of sustained success.

The full article in the Spring 2016 360º Ashridge Journal gives further deatils on the seven key dilemas. 

See full article

¹ Koontz H, and O’Donnell C (1968) Principles of Management: An Analysis of Managerial Functions, 4th Ed, McGraw-Hill, New York

² Weick, K.E. (1979), The Social Psychology of Organizing, Addison-Wesley, Reading

³ Gitsham M et al, (2008) Developing the Global Leader of Tomorrow, Ashridge Business School and European Academy of Business in Society Report

⁴ Mintzberg, H. and Quinn, J.B. (1996), The Strategy Process: Concepts, Contexts, Cases (3rd edition), Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs.

⁵ Kenny, D.A. and Zaccaro, S.J. (1983), An Estimate of Variance Due to Traits in Leadership, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 68, No. 4, pp. 678-685.

⁶ Jonas, H., Fry, R. and Srivastava, S. (1990), The Office of the CEO: Understanding the Executive Experience, Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 36-48.

⁷ Bandura, A. (1997), Self-Efficacy: the Exercise of Control, W H Freeman, New York.