What's Wrong with Leadership Development?

We focus on the wrong things.


One of the best leadership development experiences I ever participated in didn’t even bill itself as having to do with leadership at all. It was one of those men’s weekends. You know, where a bunch of guys who don’t know each other sign up for two and a half days together, usually in a remote setting, to learn more about “what it means to be a man” in today’s world. 

I don’t mean that as cynically as it sounds. It was a profound experience for me and for many who participated.

It had such an impact because we created an environment where there was no place for hubris and ego, and where genuine emotions were authentically on display. We did a great deal of work on ourselves, increasing self-awareness and building self-knowledge. In this micro-culture of our own making, we each found trust, respect, compassion, and empathy. This made it possible to be our best selves, as leaders when needed and as followers the rest of the time.

These characteristics are exactly what should be part of any leadership development effort.

I say “should be” because most often they aren’t. Instead, we get hours and hours on competencies, skill, development, and techniques. Or worse, “best practices”. It gets drilled into us from every angle that a good leader is a confident leader, and we in turn conflate this confidence with competence.

If this was true, why are we always surprised when the charming, charismatic, confident leader flames out in such a spectacular way when the heat is on?

Ray Williams in his blog in Psychology Today has a bit to say in response to this question. A big part of the challenge comes from the superficial way we “do leadership development.” Many organizations tend to view leadership development as a product, and this leads to a search for quick fixes, the latest book, and the biggest guru.

Closely connected to this perspective is the need to measure everything. Don’t get me wrong, measurement is useful for many things. Leadership development isn’t one of them, at least not in the short term. If you want to look out over years and track how leaders are growing in your organization and give some credit for that to your development efforts, that can work. Pressures to deliver often create an urgency to find quicker payoffs, and that can be a problem.

A perennial leadership debate is the built vs. inborn question: Are leaders born or can leadership be taught? I find it can be taught, but not in the ways we traditionally think. Self-awareness, empathy, and humility are the cornerstones of strong and powerful leadership. We reduce the likelihood of sustainable change if we don’t start here.

Last point (for now): Leadership development is not a commodity. It is not something only brought in from the outside. It needs to be nurtured and embedded in the culture of the organization. 

What have been your experiences with leadership development?