Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Leadership Training and You… The Sobering Truth

OK... maybe that title is a bit dramatic.  And...

Leadership development programs don't work as expected.  They will have some small impact on most participants, and no impact on a few.  However they will only have the desired impact on one or two participants.  Why?

Because Leadership is not a skill...

Many of the actions that Leaders take could be seen as skills.  We can teach people how to go through the motions of almost any skill.  We can teach people what actions people who have certain Leadership qualities take… what actions describe that quality.  However, since Leadership is not simply a compilation of skills, or simply a list of actions, we cannot teach Leadership.

Leadership is not a science…

Leadership is not facts, figures, or formulas.  We can tell people how a Leader might act when faced with a particular situation.  However, since Leadership involves other people who are all unique, there is no one right way to deal with any situation.  Remembering what to do, or how to act does not make great Leaders.

We have to want to take the actions that describe Leadership…

Simply knowing what actions to take does not mean we will take those actions.  Almost all of us know how to pray, and yet how many of us pray on a regular basis?  It takes a high level of faith, or belief to keep us praying daily throughout our lives. 

It’s the same with Leadership…

We can teach people what generous people do, and that does not make people generous.  Only those who have a strong belief that giving is fuel for contentment; who feel good when they give things away; who feel good when helping others; and who see the world as abundant, with plenty to go around will actually be generous.

We can teach people what people who listen to understand do, and that does not make them good listeners.  Only people who believe that listening to others is important; who care about others enough to be interested not only in what they say, but how they feel; who believe that the thoughts and feelings of other’s are important; and who really care about helping others will actually listen to hear both what others are saying, and how they feel about what they are saying.

We can teach people why good communication skills are important, as well as how good communicators act, however this will not create good communicators.  Only those who believe in building strong relationships; who understand why ‘no one took them the wrong way’; who believe that they are responsible for how they come across; who are not constantly judging others; and who genuinely care about others will communicate in a way that will allow others to fully understand.

These are just three simple examples of why Leadership cannot be taught… because

Leadership is really a way of seeing ourselves, the world, and how we fit into that world. 

This view only changes for each of us through mistakes, personal growth, maturity, and emotional development.  We cannot force these types of changes on others, no matter how much any of us wants it to happen.  Leadership is only developed as we learn life lessons about ourselves.  We can only foster a culture, an atmosphere, where people feel safe, trusted, and valued among other things.   This way those people can make mistakes, confide in us, trust us, and believe that we are here to help them develop these qualities, and support them through this process.

We only learn life lessons when we are ready to learn them…

We will only learn about qualities when we are ready to learn…  that is, when we have reached the appropriate level of maturity, and emotional development.  Any adult who ever attempted to teach a child about self-awareness, self-responsibility, or empathy knows that this is true.  Until we reach a certain point in our development, have made enough mistakes, and are then open to hearing about them, lessons about qualities simply make no sense to us.  The people we are trying to teach are not stupid, or incapable of learning… they are just not yet ready to learn what we are attempting to teach, and cannot understand it.

Your time, money, and energy are much better spent truly supporting Leadership and Leadership development in your workplace.   ·      If you really want to support Leadership and develop Leaders:
  • ·      Be the best example of great Leadership for everyone around you.
  • ·      Encourage and support mistakes… if you are not making mistakes you are not trying hard enough.
  • ·      Allow your Leaders the time it takes to build strong, trusting relationships with their team members.
  • ·      Encourage and support disagreement, and opposing opinions…  we only learn from people who disagree with us.
  • ·      Create a Leadership library, start a Leadership book club, and get involved in the discussion.
  • ·      Foster transparency… there should be no secrets… everyone should know and understand everything.
  • ·      Hire only the best, never settling…
  • ·      Hire only for Leadership qualities first and foremost.
  • ·      Include insurance that covers mental health.
  • ·      Work honestly with poor performers… can they be great in another role?  If not, move them off the team.
  • ·      Align your rewards systems with Leadership and the development of others.  This is the only real way you will see this continue. 

People can be taught to do something once, maybe twice… to have the behavior continue after that, that they must believe in it.  They must want to do it because it’s the right thing to do… the only way to be.  This cannot be taught.

I have, for your reading pleasure, links below for articles I’ve written about these related subjects above.  Thank you for your time and attention!

My thoughts on what Leadership is and is not.
My 16 part series on hiring for qualities rather than skills starts here.
My recent article on job descriptions and mediocrity.
And this article about Leadership training from Forbes by Rajeev Peshawaria that I thought was interesting


  1. Hello Steve,

    I came across your post when reading this month's best of Lead With Giants. And, I'm not sure I grasp what you're saying. You see, I believe that leadership skills are learned. And, the more we put into practice what we learn, the more habitual of subconscious they become.

    So, it seems that leadership can be taught. The teacher conveys information. The student receives it. Indeed the student then decides what to do with the information. But this is no different to any other instruction. Perhaps the problem with training is that responsibility for learning is with the student when it should be with the teacher?

    As ever, Martin

    1. Hi Martin,

      Thank you for your thoughts and questions. I had a tough time putting my thoughts on Leadership into words, and this post had many rewrites.

      I agree of course that skills can be learned, and the more we practice the more habitual they become. The difference, as I see it, is the difference between skills and Leadership qualities.

      I think of skills as the actions we take... meeting with team members, and having conversations to develop relationships; and active listening to fully understand what the other person is saying, as well as how they feel about what they are saying, as two examples.

      Truly caring about other people would be the quality in these examples.

      So my point is that yes, we can certainly teach people to have conversations, and tell them to develop relationships; and we can tell and show them what active listening looks like, and tell them how important it is. We cannot however make them truly care about other people... this only happens through personal growth, maturity, and emotional development.

      So... they will either simply be going through the motions of meeting and having conversations, and listening to understand the best that they can (which I have to admit is better than nothing), and/or they will do these things for a short time, and since it is not their nature to really care about others, they will soon revert back to their old ways.

      Good, effective Leaders have integrity, courage, are generous, have positive attitudes, are problem solvers, truly care for others, are humble, and extend trust to name a few... While the actions that describe these qualities can be taught do not believe that these qualities themselves can be taught.

      We only gain/develop them over time, through mistakes, emotional growth, maturity, and perhaps through witnessing the actions of other Leaders. If we do not feel generous in our hearts, we will not be able to act generously for very long. If we do not feel that others are deserving of our trust, we are simply unable to extend trust no matter what we are told. At least this is what I believe.

      I hope this makes sense... not that you must agree... just that you understand my thoughts.

    2. I have one more thing that is a new thought for me... I was talking to my honey who is a produce team Leader, and she feels that you are correct if the person is truly committed to making the changes. After a couple of examples she convinced me that if we are really committed, repeating the actions over time can and will bring about changes within us... that we can change who we are by repeating actions for the right reasons. So there you go...