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Is Leadership Training Really Failing? If It Is, Here’s Why

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Articles lamenting the failure of leadership training to produce lasting effects have become a regular addition to my article feeds. All sorts of experts are telling me that, although companies are spending more than ever on leadership training, the results are universally disappointing. My experience tells a different story and I refuse to believe that leadership development, when conducted correctly, is not effective. Here are a few uncomfortable truths about why some may feel leadership training is ineffective.

  1. There is too much emphasis placed on leadership training and not enough on leadership development. Real leadership development starts early and should begin when an employee is first considered for promotion to a supervisory role, no matter how small that role might be. If the experts come to you and say they will provide leadership training only to your executive team, and there has been no leadership development at any level below that, the effort will fail.
  2. What is sold as leadership training is often actually management training. Leaders are also managers, yes. But that doesn’t mean learning how to manage translates into learning to lead. Management training is important, but it’s essential to understand the difference.
  3. Leadership training is often conducted by trainers who haven’t actually led anything. It doesn’t take much to hold yourself out as an expert. Read a few books, publish some articles, maybe write a book, and presto, you’re an expert. It’s important to study leadership if you’re going to teach it, and the research conducted in the halls of academia is an important resource. But, a career in academics does not make you a leadership expert. Leadership is partly education and largely on-the-job training.
  4. Leadership development isn’t taken seriously. This may seem an odd statement considering how much money some companies spend. But it isn’t just about how much money is spent. If the primary thrust of leadership development is at the C-suite, the program will fail. If the primary thrust of leadership development is aimed at a few “high-potentials”, the result will be a few with some idea of good leadership in a sea of frustrated others. Again, the program will fail. If the leadership development program involves sending people to one of those 1-day firehose seminars, the results will be less than satisfying.
  5. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what leadership is. There are many experts who want us to believe there is a big division between managers and leaders. They preach that leadership is not an issue until one reaches the highest levels of a company.

They are wrong.

Anyone who is given responsibility for the work, performance, or behavior of other people is in a leadership role. Types of leadership roles and levels of responsibility change, but it’s all still leadership. Experts who make this distinction based on position in the company demonstrate that they really don’t understand leadership.

Supervisors, managers, and executives who have learned real leadership skills and who understand what leadership development involves will enjoy more success than those who don’t. That applies to their companies as well.

Leadership development does work and is one of the best investments a company can make: but only when they are truly committed to developing their leaders at all levels.


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