Why The Mainstream Leadership Development Industry Has Failed and Will Continue to Fail

I’m interested in hearing others’ thoughts on this article…much of it rings true to me, and yet, even as a seasoned leader myself, I find myself a bit troubled by either the message or the manner in which it is delivered. What do others think?

The Neuroscience of Leadership Development

A colleague of mine referenced me to an article on the Harvard Business Review® Blog Network over the weekend that she knew I would find of interest.  The blog explored a recent study on the level of dissatisfaction corporate boards were expressing on the failure of Talent Management in the corporations they oversee.  According to the study, and to no surprise, Talent Management is failing miserably in most organizations.  I say to no surprise because Talent Management is the latest offshoot of the mainstream leadership development industry, which has perhaps the most dismal performance record of any professional service industry on the planet.  Over the past twenty years alone, corporations and institutions have invested upwards of $1 trillion (yes, trillion) on leadership development.  Yet, only 1% of executives score excellent in eight key competencies of leadership, 90% score below average (McKinsey & Co®), and employee disengagement has been mired…

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5 thoughts on “Why The Mainstream Leadership Development Industry Has Failed and Will Continue to Fail

  1. It strikes me, and I’ve had little contact with the leadership industry, that leadership is not something taught, it’s something learned. What I mean is the way you lead, and the way I lead may be diametrically opposite but equally effective. The salient point in there for me is, what is the leader’s mission, in the private sector, our mission is to do an acceptable (or better) job and make a profit at it (or some variant thereof). I’m not particularly concerned with my followers behavior except as it impacts my mission.

    I’m still convinced that one learns to lead by leading, first yourself, then a small group, and then progressively larger groups. I’m still pretty much convinced that the best place to learn leadership is the infantry, either NCO or junior officer, and my results with my crew leaders supports that.

    But there may be other answers out there, because I don’t spend a lot of time anymore, researching this, too much haystack, not enough needles.

    1. The experience of leadership is absolutely critical, I would agree. However, understanding how one’s experiences fit into a framework of leadership, and more importantly, understanding that there are different ways to lead (in different situations, with different people, etc.) is also critical to becoming a truly well-rounded, adaptable leader. And whereas one can often learn that through trial and error, I think it’s the place of leadership development to help facilitate “faster” learning that would may otherwise simply be organically developed. We’ve also all seen (and experienced) “leaders” in positions without a shred of natural leadership ability (it would seem). Through coaching, mentoring, and exposure to alternative leadership “models,” per se, I believe a poor leader can become a much more proficient leader.

      I agree that, from my own personal experience, infantry leadership is amongst the best out there. But I’ve seen awful leaders who were put into positions well above their abilities who floundered until someone coached or mentored them. In the end, some of those early awful leaders become outstanding tactical and strategic leaders as a direct result of applying what their coach or mentor was advising. That’s leadership development.

      Where I think I react a bit viscerally to the notion that leadership development itself has failed is that I think there are so many different methods and means for developing leaders that to make such a blanket statement is a gross overstatement. Classroom leadership training is not the same as applied leadership development, which is different from mentoring, which is also different from coaching. To lump all under the same umbrella and to imply that the only means for growing strong leaders is to simply put people into leadership roles is, I think, shortsighted.

      1. I certainly think that’s all true. I’m no expert, and make no claims beyond that I’ve done all right. Could I have been better with expert coaching and/or mentoring, I’d bet my last dollar I could have but, far too many leadership gurus are not what they seem and eventually, especially in a small business environment, one gives up, for economic reasons if nothing else, I’ve wasted several thousands of dollars (mine and my company’s) trying various things. Now would that have been different if I had used you (and perhaps others)? From reading you for the last few years, I think so. A lot of it, I think, is what I call the mission, when we deal with behavior specialists as the article stated, we get instructions keyed to behavior change, which is fine as far as it goes but, doesn’t fit my mission parameters.

        And yes, there just has to be a better way than “sink or swim” and we’ll have the lifeguard check on you later. Although I do very carefully keep an eye on him when I put a new guy in the structure. Lately it seems (and remember I’m a operations guy) it seems like everybody (yes, that’s overstated) is afraid to do anything for fear of it being wrong, which is nearly as bad as doing the wrong thing in my experience. Maybe something for you to write about, cause I’m pretty much out of ideas, and suspect others are as well.

        And part of that, I think, is that we all work under work rules with little gradation in penalties, especially in safety compliance, it all seems to end with “shall be terminated”. Safety is critically important of course, in dealing with electricity, but the language of the manuals is so draconian as to inhibit any sort if initiative. I’m not sure there’s a solution in sight on that. It seems to be a three way tug of war between the government, the insurance company, and trying to get something done, refereed by lawyers.

        Shortsighted? Yeah, it probably is, but that is what experience has taught me, maybe I just am not discerning enough in the language used, I will say that I have learned a lot from your blog though, for whatever that is worth, and it has helped me.

  2. Trevor, interesting article. I will not expound as above, yet agree with what you both are saying. I think that leadership comes from within, with learning. You cannot make a leader if the person truly is not called to lead. I have seen people put in leadership positions who fail because they really are a great support person. Thanks for the post I really enjoyed the read.

  3. The teacher who taught you to read may never be capable of writing the novel that changes the world that you can, but they gave you the tools to develop your own capacity. Had you been left to discover reading and writing on your own, that great novel would likely still be unwritten. Like wise your high school science teacher may not be the one that discovers the cure for cancer you have, but they gave you the basis on which to build your experience in order to do so. I see this as little different. To truly learn to lead, you have to practice leading but to accelerate the practice of leadership, you need to be opened to ideas and tools. Those who provide you with those tools are experts in that, equipping you to go out and practice those skills, they do not necessarily have to do what you do, day to day.

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