September 6


Why leadership development doesn’t work

Most leadership development is a dead-end

Put it another way, it promises a lot but generally doesn’t result in lasting organisational impact.

Why is this?

Well, let’s take a typical scenario.  Does this sound familiar?

Bob comes back from a two-day leadership training offsite with 40 other  VPs from his company.  He’s found the program engaging and interesting and is motivated to put some of the management concepts into practice.  He walks in to the office with a shiny new binder of material under his arm.

His team groan.  Not only are they slightly resentful that their manager has been on another ‘jolly’ whilst they get on with the real work, but they’re now suspicious.  What new hoops is their manager going to make them jump through now?  What’s the fad of the month?

“Don’t worry,” they whisper to each other.  “Let’s just smile and keep our heads down and his enthusiasm will burn off in a couple of weeks.”

And indeed, within a couple of weeks there’s no real sign of any changed leadership behaviour.  The team keeps doing what it’s always done, how it’s always done it.

I’ve seen this scenario many times.  And to be honest, I’ve probably been in Bob’s shoes myself.  I’ve got my fair share of dusty management course binders on my own shelf.  Fair cop.

I remember the earliest time I saw this play out. It was early in my career and a senior manager came up with a team plan called “VISTA” – which his team immediately dubbed “Virtually Impossible State To Achieve”!  It was dead-on-arrival.

The more we see this play out, the more cynical and sceptical we get about whether ‘soft skills’ can really be improved and whether any of this people-development stuff can really deeply transform an organisation.  But before we write off people development, let’s have a look at why the current way of doing things just isn’t delivering.  We’ll start to see that there is a better way.

6 reasons why most leadership development doesn’t work

Let’s break apart that scenario a little and understand the six distinct factors that tend to turn leadership development into a dead-end activity.

1. Blips

So much leader development activities are ‘blips’ … disconnected, one-off events with no follow up.

  • Attending a training course … a blip.
  • Listening to a leadership speaker … a blip.
  • Reading a book … a blip.

We have a saying that gets right to the heart of the issue. “Events inspire, journeys transform”

If leadership development continues to be structured primarily around events rather than processes, then we will increasingly be frustrated and sceptical as the gap between what is promised and what we experience continues to widen.

2. “First class / coach class”

Leadership development feels a bit like a commercial airliner.

  • Up at the front in first class sit the execs, with their comfy seats and swish leadership development retreats and personal coaching sessions.
  • At the back, in coach, you find the remaining 85% of the organisation (just trying to stop the guy in front reclining his seat and crushing their knees)
  • From time to time someone from the front of the plane wanders down to the back and explains a little bit about the menu being served at the front.  Unsurprisingly, nobody wants to know.

This exclusive approach to management training is a recipe for resentment, but more importantly it doesn’t enable a bridge to built between the execs (who typically enjoy the engagement with management concepts) and the rest of the employees (who are generally more interested with getting through their workload).

Result? A dead-end.

3. “Flashing zeros on the VHS recorder”

OK, this ages me, but if you remember the old video recorders from the 1990s, it was a running joke that it was practically impossible to set the clock on them.  Unless you had a teenager in the house, it was likely that your VHS recorder would be flashing 00:00 at you for quite some time!

Leadership development suffers from the same issue. Complexity.  Very often you need the thick ‘user manual’ to engage with the material. It’s not intuitive, not easy to remember, and virtually impossible to communicate to your team in the context of daily operational activities.

In a nutshell:  it’s too complex, it can’t be transfered, so it doesn’t change the team culture.

4. Individualism

We give people tools, tips and ideas for their own leadership but fail to create a common leadership culture where the entire leadership community shares a common understanding and can encourage, advise and challenge each other with a common frame of reference.  Instead, every leader is working from their own mental model and favourite set of tools and concepts.  Everyone is left to their own devices, and best practice is not systematically embedded into the organisational culture.

5. Words, words, words

This is related to point #1 (blips).  Most leadership development is fundamentally information transfer.  And yet, we live in the Age of Google: if more information was the solution to all our problems, we’d all be beautiful, spiritually-enlightened millionaires with incredible love lives!

Information is essential, but implementation is far more valuable.

So, we need to move our people development from a schoolroom culture to apprenticeship culture. Move from 90% information, 10% implementation to 20% information, 80% implementation. Then we’ll start to get some real results.

6. No iPods here

I remember the magic of my first iPod.  I inserted a CD into my laptop. iTunes did everything else – rip it, find the song titles and cover art, and transfer it all to the portable device.  I remember a big grin spreading over my face: was it really this easy, this integrated?

The magic of the iPod was the integration of previously disparate processes: ripping CDs, downloading tracks, entering music details, transferring to a portable device.

Whatever your view on the Apple approach (I’m a fan), they have a great track record in seamless and integrated products.

And that simplicity, that integration, drives adoption.

Back in the world of leadership development, we have personality assessments, emotional intelligence training, management skills training, change mangement frameworks, company culture assessments and programmes, conflict management techniques, etcetera. All interesting, but fragmented and disparate, with different language, terminology, and processes.

This lack of integration compounds so many of the problems we’ve discussed in this article.  It multiplies complexity, reduces transferrability, and kills adoption.


We’ve diagnosed why leadership development fails to deliver.

  • Over-reliance on one-off events (inspiration without transformation)
  • An exclusive approach, ignoring 85% of the organisation
  • Complexity, prohibiting adoption across the organisation
  • Individualism, failing to create a common approach
  • Focus on information transfer at the expend of apprenticeship
  • Disparate silos that don’t mesh together

Now, as leadership development is a big part of what Xquadrant is all about, you don’t expect me to stop there, do you?

Of course not. There is a better way. I suggest you read this article on recalibrating your leadership skills.

To avoid missing out on what the alternative formula for real leadership transformation is, I highly recommend you sign up for the Xquadrant newsletter.

Do you agree with my six-point diagnosis?  What has been your experience with leadership development programmes?  What’s worked and what’s not worked?
Please leave your contribution to the topic below.

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  • I do agree with your article. One time events, etc. do not work. Engaging cultural/behavioral discussions, goals and rehearsals, when applicable, provide some modeling lay the framework. Post activity discussions that allow personal reflection of one’s modeling of a tool or template allows for the personal or organizational growth. These discussions allow the individual to adjust their style, approach and growth. They also allow you as the mentor/leader to provide any guidance and important modeling that can provide the lasting benefit to the organization.

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