Leadership Development Machines Run Amuck

By Eric Hansen

Wednesday, November 29th 2017

Can you identify the “good” leaders in your organization, those that consistently deliver results, those who others are clamoring to work with, those with insightful ideas and who champion others’ agendas? Inevitably, you can. Moving past whether leaders are born or made (it’s both), how do organizations identify the competencies required to lead? Then, how do they effectively replicate those competencies? To answer, you must first understand how often the ideas meant to promote leadership development inadvertently undermine the very capacity they seek to build.

Unintended Barriers Undermining Leadership Development

Developing Leaders vs. Leadership

No doubt, organizations invest in development. Total 2016 training in the U.S. alone topped $70B, with 32% or $22.6B targeted at executive and management development. And, the majority of surveyed businesses projected to increase or maintain their budgets for Executive and Management Development in 2017.[1]

Unfortunately, results are less impressive than the expenditure. Research from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Aberdeen, and others show that organizations are losing the battle to replace senior talent with qualified incumbents. The 2014 UNC Leadership Survey highlighted that 85 percent of respondents feel an urgent need to accelerate the development of their leaders. Senior leaders aren’t satisfied with current bench strength.  Just 40 percent report that their high-potentials can meet future business needs.[2]

Why does so much expenditure to build leadership yield so little? The first clue is in the question itself. Most organizations invest in building stronger leaders, which is markedly different from building leadership capacity. One focuses on individuals aimed at changing individual behavior and impact, perpetuating the faulty notion that leadership is an individual act.

Multi-rater feedback creates insights about how others experience leaders, so the de facto question development must address is, “How do I adjust so my behavior is helpful – or minimally less irritating? And, the subsequent question is often never asked, “change behavior to what end?”  Is less irritating or more helpful (read “liked”) really the goal? The question misses a vital component of leadership development: context.

Leadership Development Devoid of Context

Organizations exist, compete, and effectively develop in a specific context which defines the leadership behaviors required for success.  These imposing market forces often conspire to distort and even create competing behaviors that impair organization performance. But ignoring all of this, most development still takes place in a distant parallel universe.

Sadly, most development interventions never put leaders in the context of their company’s business, and most competency models are designed outside of business realities.  Other factors compound the contextual distance between learning in situ as opposed to in a classroom. Learning that takes place outside of the work environment risks being disconnected and when the timing of development is not concurrent with an actual change, little is retained. But, ensuring proper context is only the beginning.

Content at the Expense of Experience

It’s stunning that organizations still deliver leadership training to all levels of their organizations. External lecturers and internal leaders crowd development agendas.  Even assuming that their content is firmly in the right context and focuses on the development of leadership capability rather than individual leaders, it still falls short because leadership isn’t learned by talking about it. It’s learned by doing. Despite mountains of research about adult learning, organizations are still defaulting to “teaching” leadership.

Admittedly, involving executives in leadership development is a terrific tactic, but there are more productive ways to leverage their experience other than having them speak to a slide deck.  A recent client tasked with implementing a new go-to-market model globally developed a three-day program crammed with slides and case studies. After the first failed session he called in a panic. Participants struggled to engage.  Participants agreed that the content was correct, but they were given no way to assimilate or apply it. After reworking the content together to allow for interaction, bringing their experiences into the room and collaborating to solve real challenges facing the company, the results were night and day. Both sessions used the same content, but the results couldn’t have been more different.

Militant Programmatic Interventions

Like other organization initiatives, leadership development programs can take on lives of their own. Once programs are built out, many companies switch the “development machinery” to autopilot.  Eventually, symptoms like mindless devotion to processes, forced job rotations, succession slates, and forced mentoring assignments emerge. One client noticed an increasing failure rate among director-level leaders and described it as an “onboarding” problem, believing that newly promoted leaders needed more tools although they weren’t sure exactly which tools to deploy.   After reviewing their development process, we uncovered a ruthless system of forced promotion. No one was permitted to “get comfortable” in their job.   Everyone had to move up on a predetermined schedule. This ingrained process was taking a toll. They struggled to concede the point, but ultimately abandoned the practice. Vigilance to reduce the number of militant programmatic interventions is a difficult, but vital part of effectively managing your development capability.

Fragmented Parts Undermining the Whole

Leadership development is a multifaceted effort, and though it may be “owned” in HR, ultimately line leaders must be held accountable to improve leadership capacity.  Consider what holistic portfolio of leadership development activities is optimal for your particular context, and how you can effectively embed them into the fabric of the organization—facilitated (not driven) by a centralized team. Unfortunately there is no off-the-shelf package that will do this for you because it is intimately tied to your particular organization. Now, where do you begin?

Finding Valence: Build Leadership Capacity in Context

Develop Leadership as a Collective Capacity

Leadership is a distinct, collective capability in an organization – a potent capacity that doesn’t rely just on a few individuals. The “leadership quotient” of an organization is measured more in the strength of relationships among leaders, in the collective understanding and ownership of the enterprise agenda, in the ebb and flow of taking and communicating clear decisions, and in the accountability of leading and reinforcing the same. 

Build leadership development initiatives around naturally occurring cohorts of leaders focused on markets, products, customers, or geographical boundaries.  Follow the natural groupings which will drive the execution of your strategy. Reinforce that their leadership is an underpinning force to grow the business. Diminish their beliefs that their leadership only matters to those who report to them.

Aim Development at “Doing” Instead of “Knowing”

Investing excessive resources in leadership lectures isn’t productive.  Leadership flows mostly from “doing” so engage cohorts of developing leaders in the active work of advancing the company’s strategy and performance.  Use real experiences to strengthen leadership capacity.

Leadership development is usually positioned as preparatory to participating in initiatives such as new strategy development, merger integration, organization redesign, or other major initiatives. Flip this around. Use major initiatives to develop leadership capacity. Target participation and build learning into the initiatives. Stretch their thinking about the implications of the changes they are designing and how their leadership must evolve for future success.  Unless consciously designed, shaping new leadership behaviors is left on the table.

Leverage the Natural Patterns of the Organization

Your organization is a dynamic, living system with a unique culture consisting of strong, tacit patterns of engagement for “how things get done.” Understanding this ecosystem is another leverageable asset for developing leaders in situ versus disconnected from each other and their organizational context. Identify natural groupings of leaders. Learn why certain formations have developed and their impact. Then, intervene in real time by helping leaders modify their choices.

A simple example of this involved habitual morning coffee for three leaders who met most mornings to talk. This is the very definition of informal –a pattern that started because of individual habits. Naturally, talk turned to business.  Eventually they began making decisions; however, there was another key player who didn’t participate in the morning ritual, but who should have been included on the decision. They realized this when they ran into a road block. Their simple solution was to include him.

Alternate Experiential Learning with Work on Real Strategic Issues

Quality leadership development experiences are just that – experiences. Sometimes it is necessary to isolate specific behavioral and relational patterns by creating a “metaphor” in which leaders can “lead” while focusing more on skill development than the actual task, more on context than content. For these instances, we use simulations, fabricating organizations with “real” issues in which leaders are immersed and expected to lead. While simulations are fictitious, they are “real” in that the stakes are high with actual consequences for their actions which surfaces, even amplifies, their natural instincts under the pressure.  Most importantly, simulations create a safe laboratory to examine what does and doesn’t work about their leadership and to make adjustments in a safe environment. We then transition them to work on actual challenges in their own organizations, equipped with a broader array of behavioral and relational options to increase their positive influence on performance and results.

Accelerate Feedback Loops to Both Individuals and the Organization

Finally, real-time data facilitates making effective course corrections and accelerating performance. Quicker feedback loops for insights about leadership choices and the organizational consequences accelerate performance gains. Build in feedback, but avoid cumbersome 360 processes. Use just-in-time processes that surface feedback on initiatives, strategies, unresolved issues, and attempts to employ new leadership behavior that enable making real-time adjustments. Well facilitated focus groups, fast-cycle interview processes, and even brief online survey tools, used effectively, generate insights that strengthen relationships between leaders and encourage transparent exchanges in which helpful feedback is exchanged routinely and applied confidently.


[1] 2016 Training Industry Report, November/December 2016, Retrieved from www.trainingmag.com, pp 28-41.


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