Nurturing Future Leaders: Adapting Leadership Development Approaches to a Changing Context

To be successful, positional leaders must learn to move from being 'hero' to 'host', providing the conditions, processes and resources for others to step up and contribute at every level.

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If leaders are judged by how they lead in context, then the business of developing public sector leaders must account for the operational and organisational environment into which they will transfer their learning. With the increasing complexity of today’s challenges, however, we see a shift in the role of positional leaders (defined here as those formally appointed to positions of authority by the organisation), with a growing emphasis on achieving results through supporting and developing officers, and adapting the organisation to context.

Leadership development approaches will likewise have to go beyond building up the individual leader’s capacity, towards nurturing the capacities of their teams and organisations. There will also need to be a focus on building new capacities that enable leaders to foster leadership and innovation in others at work.


The changing context in which leaders now operate demands that organisations redefine how they think about positional leaders. Our traditional conception of the ‘leader-as-hero1 —positional leaders as charismatic heroes who are fully in control and who provide all the plans and insightful answers—may no longer serve us well. Instead, we need to think of positional leaders as hosts —people who provide the conditions, processes and resources for others to come together for a common purpose in addressing a complex problem at hand. This ‘leader-as-host’ perspective acknowledges that a leader does not have all the answers, but instead finds ways to access and unleash the collective intelligence and energies that reside in their teams and networks.2

In order to play this role well, positional leaders need to (i) sense-make and sense-give in order to provide clarity and direction, (ii) create the conditions that enable innovative and adaptive responses to emerge throughout the organisation, and (iii) work well with other leaders towards collective goals.

We need to think of positional leaders as hosts— people who provide the conditions, processes and resources for others to come together for a common purpose.


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In times of complexity, leaders need to engage in sense-making to interpret and explain unpredictable or ambiguous events in their world.3 Furthermore, they need to shape others’ sense-making processes and outcomes by sense-giving: articulating a coherent, understandable and tolerable narrative of this complex reality.4 But while leaders should provide a clear narrative in their sense-giving, it is not helpful for them to stick to a single, rigid narrative. Instead, they need to flex the narrative in order to address the divergent concerns and priorities of those involved.5 Successful sense-giving can rally everyone around a core purpose.


To tap on the collective competence of their team, or of the organisation as a whole, positional leaders must create conditions that enable innovation. Positional leaders, by virtue of the formal power they hold, are well-placed to establish organisational culture, systems and processes. Taken together, leadership actions such as championing the need for change,6, 7, 8 strengthening connections among people and organisational units for generative conversations, building a culture of psychological safety and learning,9 and empowering staff to initiate ideas, can enable innovative responses to emerge throughout the organisation.10, 11 In addition, positional leaders need to define the boundaries of innovation—by being clear on what the vision of the organisation is and what values should guide everyone’s behaviours.


It is becoming increasingly clear that leaders do not work in silos. As issues become more cross-cutting and complex, leaders need to collaborate with other leaders. Senior leadership is increasingly recognised as ‘collective work’,12 with the apex executive team in organisations forming an important collective entity. Thus, leaders also need to know how to work together with other leaders for the greater good.

While leaders should provide a clear narrative in their sense-giving, it is not helpful for them to stick to a single, rigid narrative. They need to flex the narrative in order to address the divergent concerns and priorities of those involved.


As the role of positional leaders changes, leadership development approaches need to shift in tandem. We believe that leadership development should focus firstly on the intrapersonal competencies that enable an individual to lead himself or herself, then nurture interpersonal competencies that enable the individual to lead others, and hence lead organisations, taking into consideration the broader leadership context.


In the new leadership context, positional leaders must re-examine and reconstruct their leader identity, i.e., what an individual defines leadership to be, and the extent to which they consider such a leader role to be an important aspect of who they are.13 Being a leader-as-host with a more collective orientation may run counter to their implicit theory of good leadership and the individualistic leader-as-hero behaviours they are more accustomed to seeing in other leaders, and that they themselves are more comfortable displaying. Shifting this mindset is challenging as it requires leaders to reflect and introspect, and then embrace a new identity. It entails being vulnerable and being comfortable sharing power and control with others, instead of being the one with all the answers and who makes all the decisions. This can be particularly difficult if social and organisational norms continue to expect and reward those who are leaders-as-heroes. Nonetheless, as we behave in ways that are aligned with our self-identity, a mindset shift is the prerequisite for motivating positional leaders to develop new behaviours.

A core set of evergreen competencies are meta-skills that enable leaders to be more effective. In particular, these include having a learning orientation and being willing and able to learn from experiences. Experience is at the heart of leadership development, yet people may go through an experience without learning anything from it,14,15 or learning the wrong lessons.16, 17

Another focal area for positional leaders is vertical cognitive development— helping leaders expand their thinking and develop a more sophisticated mode of thinking that can help them grapple with the uncertainties and diversities they will face in their new role. As studies show,18 early in our cognitive development as adults, we are inclined to see things in black and white terms, to conform to authority and the status quo, and to seek to be aligned with others. Later on, we become more holistic and flexible in our thinking, until we advance to become independent thinkers who can see broader systems, patterns and connections. We then become more comfortable with ambiguity and better able to shift flexibly across multiple perspectives, and to adjust our opinions to account for new information. Such expanded cognitive structures contribute to the leader-as-host role, by helping leaders better harness divergent views in their team while holding a ‘big picture’ systems view.

Nuturing Future Leaders_Fig 1

Figure 1. Focus of Leadership Development Competencies

Given the changing context of positional leadership, some intrapersonal competencies that have long been core to leadership development should continue to be emphasised. These include values that ensure the practice of leadership is underpinned by a strong moral compass and are aligned with the organisation’s ethos.19 For Singapore’s Public Service leaders, this means being grounded in the principles of integrity, service and excellence. Public Service leaders need to have a stewardship mindset, so that they use their positional power to make decisions that are for the long-term collective good of the nation.20 Emotional competencies that enable leaders to be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, to be mindful of and to manage their behaviours and impact on others, will be vital to the facilitative role of leader-as-host.21

The many demands and stresses on leaders have never been greater, and leaders need to develop personal resilience to sustain their effectiveness in the longer term. This involves being able to handle pressure, to recognise and reduce the impact that stress has on oneself, and to adapt and bounce back in the face of challenging circumstances, while taking steps to maintain a stable mental wellbeing. Those able to do so will be more productive, make better decisions, have more positive energy, and have a more positive impact on the people they work with.22 In modelling healthy resilience in the face of vulnerability and stress, leaders can also inspire their teams and organisations to do the same.


Leadership development will need to focus on building competence in leading others in a more distributed and facilitative manner. A shared leadership approach to team processes can enable a more agile and successful response to complex challenges. Leadership has shifted away from the traditional practice where control or authority resides in a single individual; it has become a dynamic social process in which influence is distributed within a team,23 geared towards shared goals. Such a process often involves “peer, or lateral, influence and at other times involves upward or downward hierarchical influence”.24 Positional leaders must be willing to empower others to lead, and receive guidance and direction from peers and subordinates where relevant.25 To allow this to occur, leaders must develop leadership capabilities in their team members and create the conditions for team members to step up to the responsibility of leadership.

To allow for the emergence of collective leadership, leaders must also work to develop psychological safety within their team environment. Research has shown that individuals perform more interpersonally risky behaviours (such as asking for help, admitting mistakes or ignorance, suggesting improvements or taking initiative) when they are confident these will be taken in the right spirit and not harm their self-image, status or career. 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 Furthermore, psychological safety has been positively associated with learning behaviours,32 which is in turn conducive to continuous learning in an ever-changing and uncertain environment.33

While leaders have perhaps the most significant impact in establishing psychological safety, 34 it is not an easy task: leaders must also hold the tension between creating safety while upholding performance. Nevertheless, how leaders support and encourage their teams in the face of failure sets a salient example. If a leader adopts a defensive or punitive stance, team members are less likely to feel that it is safe or worthwhile to speak up, compared to a leader who welcomes questions, suggestions or challenges.35 Leaders need to demonstrate that they are accessible to their followers, model openness and vulnerability, and in the face of failure will displace blame with curiosity, solicit input, and reward innovative thinking and ideas.36


In an increasingly complex and dynamic environment, successful organisational transformations are not the result of positional leaders dictating and pushing through their own agenda, but the outcome of leaders-as-hosts creating conditions that encourage and energise people to contribute to and grow from the transformation process. In other words, it is about “doing change with people rather than doing change to them”.37 Successful organisational leadership is about knowing how to co-create a vision with others, build emotional alignment between people and the organisational agenda, establish co-ownership of organisational strategies, shape organisational culture and shared values, and provide motivation and inspiration to the entire organisation.38

The increasing complexity and interconnectedness of challenges will demand collaboration across organisational and sectoral boundaries. Leaders need to work collaboratively across boundaries, with a whole-of-government mindset that focuses on collective stewardship of Singapore’s interests, even if they supersede organisational or personal goals. This calls for a willingness to lead or follow, to best ensure national objectives are reached. Not only must leaders internalise this identity of collective leadership, but they must also role model it and promote it in their organisations, create alignment with broader mission, vision and values, while sharing the bigger picture with their people and clarifying their place within it.

Successful organisational transformations are the outcome of leaders-as-hosts creating conditions that encourage and energise people to contribute to and grow from the transformation process.


To promote leadership behaviours throughout an organisation beyond those in positional authority, the scope of leadership development must broaden. Leadership development interventions have traditionally focused on equipping high potential officers and existing leaders for leadership positions. Given the increasingly complex and novel nature of leadership challenges, harnessing collective talent across teams and organisations requires all staff to step up as leaders when needed, based on their unique competencies. Hence, the intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies that apply to positional leaders could also be relevant to others in the organisation, while positional leaders have the additional role of nurturing their people and creating the conditions for leadership to emerge in others.

Positional leaders have the additional role of nurturing their people and creating the conditions for leadership to emerge in others.

This perspective highlights the significance of three broad trends in leadership development that have gained momentum in recent years:

1. Integrating different avenues for developing leadership, leveraging data and technology

The 70:20:10 model has been widely used to guide leadership development, with 70% of development occurring through on-the-job assignments, 20% through working with and learning from other people, and 10% through formal programmes. The ratios may vary from person to person, depending on their specific developmental needs and career stage.39 Nonetheless, the 70:20:10 model offers a convenient shorthand for thinking about the different avenues for developing the leadership competencies described above.

Leadership development can be maximised when different types of developmental experiences are integrated in a thoughtful manner, rather than pursued in isolation. Challenging job assignments can trigger learning as they require individuals to build up competencies to meet the demands of a new role. Particularly during the first 6 to 12 months, when new leaders are more aware of their developmental needs and more eager to develop themselves, attending relevant formal programmes can help close competency gaps; and practising these competencies on a day-to-day basis will further build expertise.40, 41, 42 Colleagues and peers can further catalyse learning by providing guidance, advice and feedback. They may also serve as social support to help leaders to benefit from challenging assignments without feeling overwhelmed.43 Thus, a leadership development approach integrating learning from on-the-job assignments, formal programmes, and other people, can increase the developmental value that a leader extracts from a job assignment, because of the complementary and mutually reinforcing effects of learning from these different avenues.

Leveraging data and technology could make the integration of learning from these different avenues even more efficient and impactful. For instance, data on the experience, strengths and developmental needs of an individual could be used to determine the job assignment that would be most beneficial at a particular stage in that leader’s career. Developmental programmes could be conducted virtually and interspersed with on-the-job experiences; digital learning resources could be accessible anytime and anywhere on a just-in-time basis; algorithms could be used to recommend learning resources that are most relevant; and virtual support networks could be readily formed with relevant others regardless of their geographical locations. As technology advances, there will be other ways to better integrate learning from different avenues in future.

Leadership development can be maximised when different types of developmental experiences are integrated in a thoughtful manner, rather than pursued in isolation.


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2. Encouraging individuals to be active designers of their own development

Traditionally, individuals have been relatively passive consumers of leadership development interventions. They attend leadership development programmes where the curriculum has been curated for them, networks of peers are created to support them, and developmental experiences assigned to them.

Although the organisation can and should do its part to support leadership development, individuals can be more proactive in managing their own development and building up habits of learning from their own experience, so that the learning is much more suited to their unique needs. Adults learn best when the learning is perceived to be relevant and practical in helping with real-life situations.44, 45

Individuals can be active designers of their own development in different ways. For example, they could co-create their leadership development curriculum, be more proactive in identifying suitable developmental avenues, or take the initiative to build their own support network—and some of these experiences and resources could be from outside the work context as well, offering a broader perspective.


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3. Leaders playing a more active role in developing other leaders

An important source of learning for many leaders is their own supervisor, and organisations could do more to encourage their leaders to grow other leaders.46 Within their team, leaders can catalyse and support their team members’ development by assigning and designing challenging work experiences; helping them to identify learning opportunities and set personal learning goals for work assignments; encouraging them to develop new competencies that would enable them to better contribute to the organisation; helping them to identify situations where they can apply their new competencies; teaching them important 3 lessons; providing trust and autonomy and support; offering timely feedback on their behaviours; and providing affirmation when the new competencies are displayed effectively.47

In addition, leaders can serve as coaches or mentors to the next generation of leaders in the organisation. This builds greater leadership capability throughout the organisation, in terms of not only leadership competencies but also leadership ethos. This can also build the leaders’ own leadership effectiveness by prompting reflections of what leadership means to them, consolidating what they have learnt from their own leadership experience, and honing their skills in communicating with others. Thus, leaders building leaders could raise the level of leadership in the entire organisation.


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The Singapore Public Service must remain responsive and adaptive to the ever-changing context that it operates in, which in turn means that our approach to leadership and leadership development must be equally adaptive.

How organisations view leadership has evolved with changing expectations on positional leaders, with leaders expected to develop new competencies and display new behaviours.

As a result, we have placed greater focus on leadership development that engages with a larger talent base in the Public Service, and that integrates different avenues of leadership development, leveraging technology and data, self-directed learning, and leaders developing other leaders. Leaders themselves must manage the tension of performing and learning in the flow of work and when to play the role of ‘hero’ or ‘host’, depending on circumstances.

This shift will not happen overnight. Just like the leaders we hope to develop, we will have to learn from experience, adapt and be agile in our innovations, and harness collective efforts towards the common cause of developing future-ready leaders in the Singapore Public Service.


Khoo Ee Wan is Lead Researcher at the Institute of Leadership and Organisation Development, Civil Service College.

Dr Aurora de Souza Watters is Senior Researcher at the Institute of Leadership and Organisation Development, Civil Service College.

Suniartie Sudyono is Senior Manager and Senior L&D Specialist at the Institute of Public Sector Leadership, Civil Service College.


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  18. Different researchers have proposed different typologies and stages that describe how adults develop more complex and sophisticated ways of thinking as they mature (e.g., Cook-Greuter, 2004; Kegan, 1982; Rooke & Torbert, 2005).
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  33. See Note 27.
  34. A. C. Edmondson, “Speaking Up in the Operating Room: How Team Leaders Promote Learning in Interdisciplinary Action Teams”, Journal of Management Studies 40, no. 6 (2003): 1419–1452.
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  36. A. de Souza Watters, “Am I Safe? Exploring the Need for Psychological Safety in the Singapore Public Service and How Leaders Can Promote It”, research report (Civil Service College, Singapore, 2018).
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  38. E. W. Khoo, “The Role of Leadership in Organisational Transformations”, research report (Civil Service College, Singapore, 2013).
  39. E. W. Khoo, “Leadership Development 70:20:10 and Beyond”, research report (Civil Service College, Singapore, 2018).
  40. D. V. Day, J. W. Fleenor, L. E. Atwater, R. E. Sturm, and R. A. McKee, “Advances in Leader and Leadership Development: A Review of 25 Years of Research and Theory”, The Leadership Quarterly 25 (2014): 63–82.
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  42. E. Van Velsor and W. C. Musselwhite, “The Timing of Training, Learning and Transfer”, Training and Development Journal (1986): 58–59.
  43. D. S. DeRue and N. Wellman, “Developing Leaders via Experience: The Role of Developmental Challenge, Learning Orientation, and Feedback Availability”, Journal of Applied Psychology 94 (2009): 859–875.
  44. S. P. Forrest III and T. O. Peterson, “It’s Called Andragogy”, Academy of Management Learning and Education 5 (2006): 113–122.
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  46. M. W. McCall and J. J. McHenry, “Catalytic Converters: How Exceptional Bosses Develop Leaders”, in Using Experience to Develop Talent: How Organisations Leverage On-the-Job Development, eds. C. D. McCauley and M. W. McCall (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), 396–421.
  47. See Note 39.

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