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When Leadership Training Doesn’t Work

Written By: Rich Mesch

July 6, 2023 – 5 min read

I recently read an online article that posited that leadership training doesn’t work. Look at great leaders like JFK and Gandhi, the author argued. Did they get leadership training? The author further went on to argue that leadership training has never turned an incompetent into an effective leader. So, he queried, why bother doing it at all?

As someone who has made a commitment to leadership development for most of my career, I admit I felt my blood starting to boil as I read this article. First of all, I would argue that most great leaders did receive leadership development—not all leadership development happens in the classroom. I imagine that JFK, a Navy officer, had quite a bit of formal leadership training. So I spent some time reflecting, and I concluded there was some truth to the author’s words.

Sometimes, leadership training fails to produce great leaders, and since this is a blog post, I came up with five reasons why. 

1. Leadership “training” isn’t really a thing

Leadership development is—and it doesn’t just happen in a classroom. I’ve seen too many “leadership training courses” which were just parades of models. While structures like Situational Leadership and DISC are useful as scene-setters, they aren’t leadership. You can learn a lot about music by attending concerts, but you won’t be a musician when you’re done. Being a leader means practicing what you’ve learned in the real world, understanding what it means to fail, and experiencing the emotional impact leadership makes. All the “training” in the world won’t substitute for that. 

2. Not everybody is going to be a great leader—that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be a good one

Yes, there are such things as natural leaders, just as there are natural athletes and natural artists. The “naturals” aren’t born with the skill they need, but they seem to fit the job easily. And yes, many leaders are charismatic, but charisma without skill is a con man, not a leader. The simple truth is, many people who aren’t “naturals” are going to be called on to be leaders. They may have to work a little harder to succeed, but they can succeed. In fact, they are the people for whom leadership development does the most good. 

3. People who are thrust into leadership roles best be prepared

How do you become a leader in many organizations? Be the best call center agent; congratulations, you’re now a call center supervisor! Be the best salesperson; congratulations, you’re now a sales manager! The irony of this, of course, is that these individualized skill sets often don’t lend themselves to leadership. But as long as this approach continues, leadership development programs can help these “accidental leaders” to succeed. 

4. Some people don’t want to be leaders, and no amount of training will change that

This is sort of a corollary to #3, above. I had a retail client who often promoted their retail merchants into merchandising manager roles. Retail merchants are rock stars—through their own personal style and personality, they decide what stores are going stock and ultimately, what people are going to wear. Rock stars are often not particularly happy managing other people—they like the spotlight. The client put a program in place to help merchants understand what it meant to be promoted—to decide if it was something they even wanted. If you’re going to fail, fail fast. 

5. Lack of Engagement

Okay, this may be the hardest one for us learning professionals to swallow. Because it’s easier for us to say “leadership development doesn’t work” than to say “we aren’t doing a good enough job.” Leadership development should be vital, exciting, and meaningful. When it’s dry, irrelevant, and difficult to apply to real life, can we really blame our audience if they’re not engaged? Sorry, folks, that’s on us.

I used to run a leadership simulation with a group of craggy old managers in a heavy manufacturing company. In one round of the simulation, teams dealt with safety issues and made some decisions around having a safety contest. As we discussed the scenario afterwards, many participants spoke out against the idea of a safety contest. “It’s their own safety!” the argument went. “It sends the wrong message to reward them for not getting hurt.” Then the grumpiest, craggiest old manager of them all spoke up. “I got sick of seeing someone on my team get hurt, so I put a safety contest in place. Our accident rate is now zero. I don’t care if it’s right or wrong. I only care that my team doesn’t get hurt.” After a moment of silence, the tone of the conversation changed—from “right” ways and “wrong” ways, to achieving goals and keeping people safe.

That’s leadership, folks. Leadership development does work. It makes good leaders better. It gives new leaders perspective. It gives “accidental” leaders skill sets. No, you don’t need a title to be a leader, but if you manage people, you better be a leader. If it’s not working, we’re doing it wrong. But here’s the good news: there are lots of examples of people doing it right.

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