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?

Consistency in Performance Evaluation

So much of what doesn’t work is the result of saying one thing and doing another.


Perhaps the biggest challenge with performance evaluation is that organizations’ espoused theories about it don’t line up with their theories in use. Most do come from a place of good faith and good intentions, speaking of empowerment, partnership, cooperation, teamwork, and development all in connection with performance appraisal.

The problem is that the practice of performance appraisal is very different. In many cases it runs counter to these contemporary values. Putting everyone through the same process, using the same forms, requiring signatures, putting the results in personnel files, giving responsibility for development to the boss; these features turn performance review into a patriarchal system of control.

What to do?

None of this is to say there aren’t aspects of the process that can be beneficial and do work. People need to know where they stand and deserve honest feedback to learn about themselves. So, let’s take what’s good about performance review and shift the process so that it matches the stated assumptions and values and gives both the individual and the organization what they need.

As I said in the post that started this series, there are typically five areas most performance appraisal systems try to address. We can begin by unbundling these. They are all very different with different purposes, and so should be handled in separate processes and interactions.

Performance feedback. Feedback is information, information that may spur learning. If it carries with it all the baggage associated with other topics like pay, status, and discipline, how much careful listening and learning is likely to occur? Not very much, as common practice shows.

Here’s a radical notion: the person most in control of a feedback conversation is the receiver of the feedback. After all, she is the one who ultimately decides whether it is useful or not. Therefore, give the responsibility for seeking feedback to her, since she’s the one who stands to benefit the most from it. This makes it voluntary, not mandated, and the feedback seeker is now empowered to get what she needs to succeed.

There is so much more to say about healthy feedback systems and conversations. Here’s a start. More in later posts.

Factors in the reward systems (compensation and promotion). The interplay between individuals, money, effort, and motivation is complex. Nevertheless, a common mistake is to place too much weight on external motivators like compensation. Study after study validates that people are motivated to give their best effort when they feel their work is meaningful and is connected to a higher purpose. That’s not to say that pay is not important, but its power is as a demotivating force when it is inequitable.

Many factors that drive results are not in the control of individuals. Plus, nearly everyone sees themselves as “exceeding expectations”. These are perhaps the most significant drawbacks in linking pay and performance. Pay people well enough to pull in and hold onto those who can best contribute to the organization’s success. Pay people fairly, with increases based on transparent policies about the market value of each job, and thereby take the immediate focus off money as a motivator.

Where promotions are concerned, a big part of the argument for using appraisals is that they are “objective.” This is an unreasonable assumption, as any performance review contains the judgments and opinions of the supervisor. Far better to design promotion processes that are fair, consistent, and that provide equal access to relevant information.

Review of the appraisee’s potential for professional development. Development goals, action plans, and organizational support for growth are all appropriate, if implemented at the discretion of the employee. Things start to go off the rails when the process is mandatory and all are subject to the same components. This difficulty is compounded when the supervisor is put in the position of career counselor; many supervisors are neither qualified nor interested in doing this. An employee who is subject to a compulsory development planning process is not empowered to be in charge of his own development, all assurances to the contrary notwithstanding.

Documentation for any centralized reporting that HR may do. With very few exceptions, performance appraisals are not required by law. In addition, appraisals are not reliably helpful evidence in court; they have been shown to work in favor of both employees and employers, depending on the circumsatnces. Sure, employers should consistently document performance deficiencies, for lots of good reasons, and there are countless ways to do it effectively without performance appraisals.

Raw material for any coaching the manager may do with the team member. Encouraging managers to be more like coaches is a worthy objective. However, not all are cut out to be coaches. In addition, as any good coach will tell you, everyone has different needs and responds to different kinds of encouragement. Consequently, a one size fits all approach as prescribed by the performance appraisal process is flawed from the outset.

So much of the way the appraisal process is designed and carried out results from the embedded assumption that improving individual performance will improve organizational performance. While leaders certainly want employees to give their best every day, this organization-as-machine metaphor where humans are interchangeable parts is well past its sell-by date. Organizational improvement is most often the result of improvement in larger systems and processes, not individuals. The job of managers and leaders is to create the conditions that enable people to unleash their talents and perform at their best. These things employees will freely give, if the conditions are right.


I am indebted to the work of Dick Grote, Peter Block, Tom Coens, and Mary Jenkins for this series on performance reviews.

The Contribution System and Performance

It really is all about the conversation


Being focused in an conversation with another person is important most anytime, but especially during a performance review. Last time, I wrote about a couple of ways to bring more focus to an appraisal. This next step in the progression begins to move away from traditional configurations of this important institutional process.

Start by considering that an individual’s performance is part of a much larger context, or system. This can seem at cross purposes to the whole point of an appraisal, but I’d like to suggest it is a more realistic and fair way to review performance.

Ask who or what contributed to the results this person achieved. Certainly the appraisee had something to do with the way things turned out, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place. Looked at closely, however, any outcome or result has multiple contributors. They all need to be considered if what happened is going to be repeated (or avoided).

Too often, performance reviews are about parceling out blame for something that happened. This is unproductive for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that blaming usually elicits defensiveness, strong emotion, interruptions, and arguments. Not exactly the stuff of effective conversations.

Focusing on contribution can make a potentially difficult feedback conversation about performance relatively easier and more likely to be productive.

It does not let the person being reviewed off the hook. The central notion is that a number of factors that led to the outcome we are talking about, and one of these factors was the action (or inaction) of the person being reviewed. If you intend for learning and change to take place, a surer way to get there is by adopting a forward-looking, problem-solving approach to the conversation.

The original meaning of conversation, extending from the 14th century, was the act of living with, or keeping company with. It didn’t pick up the specific sense of “talk” until around 1580. Hence conversation, especially in the sense I am using it with respect to performance appraisal, implies full engagement and commitment by the two parties.

In order to do this most effectively, more frequent, shorter interactions may be helpful. The once-a-year review comes fraught with lots of noise and baggage that can make real conversation very challenging. Increasing the frequency might also lighten the record keeping burden for everyone.