Leadership development needs to shift the focus onto developing learners who can create solutions. By Kate Wilson

This year’s top provider chief executives’ list highlighted leaders who are having a significant impact on patients through their organisational leadership and their delivery of innovative system transformation.

These are leaders who, despite working in a stretched NHS, are engaging their people and providing inspiring, forward looking voices.  In other words, they are leaders who are leading impressively in a complex system context of rapid change, ambiguity and complexity. 

This context is here to stay and with it, an increased emphasis on a critical capability for leaders – the ability to learn and adapt. We call this ‘learning agility’ and it is what helps leaders know what to do when they don’t know what to do. 

Those with high learning agility are curious and actively seek out experiences to learn from; enjoying the complex problems and challenges associated with those new experiences and applying their learning from them rapidly. It is not surprising then that our research shows that learning agility is a top predictor of leadership potential and more rapid promotion. 

Whilst some may have naturally high learning agility, this is not a capability you develop overnight or through conventional leadership development programmes.

We know it requires stretching experiences that need adaptive responses and, the space to reflect on these experiences and develop the mindset and habits of active learners. In other words, in an increasingly complex world, leadership development for the future needs to stop assuming it can teach the answers and shift the focus onto developing learners who can create them.

This is no longer a leadership challenge (what good looks like) it’s a developmental challenge (the process of creating bigger minds).

Future trends in leadership development, Nick Petrie, Centre for Creative Leadership

With the retirement announced of several of the NHS’s best known chief executives the challenge of developing the next generation is brought into sharp relief.  A changing context and changing roles may mean a new approach to developing the talent of the future. 

With the ability to learn and adapt so critical, a stronger focus on identifying and developing leader’s learning agility must sit at the heart of this. Given the increasing need for system working this is also likely to mean upping the pace on sharing and shaping talent at a system level to give leaders the experiences they need. 

That will require chief executives prepared to look beyond traditional career paths and take some risks.  Good job we have some leaders at the top with the learning agility to take on the challenge!

Korn Ferry helps leaders, organisations, and societies succeed by releasing the full power and potential of people. Our Health and local government team works extensively across the sector helping you find the leaders you need and turn organisational and system strategies into reality.

Korn Ferry Hay Group helps you align your people and your organization to your strategy – developing, engaging and rewarding your employees to reach new heights.

Korn Ferry Futurestep delivers professional talent that builds up leadership.



Three women lead the HSJ top 50 trust chief executives