You are probably well aware of the theory that given an infinite supply of monkeys, with an infinite supply of computers, one would eventually produce, purely through random keystrokes, the entire works of Shakespeare. Bob Newhart famously skewered this notion by pointing out some basic practicalities that the theorists did not take into consideration: like who is going to check on what the monkeys have produced? (see ‘The Button Down Mind Strikes Back’ or hear it here if you have Spotify).
The theory itself is not really open to dispute because it is just probability taken to its logical (some would say absurd) conclusion. However, whoever dreamed up the monkey scenario must have accepted that it was a theory that could never be tested in the real world. The most dedicated, pragmatic, evidence-based learning manager would certainly not try to.
They would readily acknowledge the existing evidence that shows we have only witnessed one William Shakespeare so far from an entire population of X billion human beings who have inhabited our planet. They would also quickly dismiss the monkey theory as having no chance of producing another one.
Yet that doesn’t seem to stop many learning ‘professionals’ and ‘leadership developers’ from being active members of the Monkey Club and sending numerous management cohorts to the ‘monkey rooms’ at Ashridge and elsewhere. The evidence-based learning manager would not entertain that idea.
First, they are painfully aware of the huge gulf that exists between certain academic theories (165,000 books thrown up by searching ‘leadership’ on Amazon.com), the harsh realities of organisational life and what makes for effective practice. They also know that there is absolutely no point trying to prove a theoretical, academic construct that was never intended to be proven in the real world. Instead they would opt for a much simpler, more obvious and more credible alternative – they would gather enough convincing evidence to demonstrate the efficacy of their practices in a particular context, for a particular purpose, at a particular time.
Leadership development, using evidence-based learning principles, does not inflict a pre-determined ‘leadership course’ on a group of hapless managers. It does not cobble together a random selection of leadership models either; especially as most of these contradict and conflict with each other. The probability of such random leadership development (sic) producing a better ‘leader’ is negligible.
Evidence-based learning managers do not run leadership courses. They do not even regard leadership as being objectively verifiable; simply because there is no single definition of what a good leader looks like. Nevertheless, they certainly aim to build on and enhance any latent, leadership capability as a direct by-product of a well-designed, as opposed to random, experience in which managers move onto a higher plane by achieving results that would not be attainable through management practices alone.
For example, if the BBC really wanted to develop leadership they should have concentrated on improving programming, production and audience responses beyond the expectations of budgets and schedules and then drawn their own conclusions about who had shown those rare signs of leadership that mark out the exceptional from the ordinary. In other words they should have kept their gaze firmly on the sort of outcomes and value the organisation needs and then created an environment in which effective leadership, defined by those same criteria, could be recognised and allowed to blossom.
In the meantime there will still be plenty of non-evidence-based ‘learning professionals’ plonking an almost limitless number of confused managers in front of an infinite number of screens, books and presenters labelled ‘Leadership’; vainly hoping that one of the little monkeys does a bit more than just sitting there scratching themselves.