Leadership Training Mostly Fails — Why?

Harvard Business Review gets grumpy about wasted training expenses for leadership development. Should we be surprised?

Not so much!

Having experienced the challenge from both sides (as many readers will have done), we can appreciate that "leadership" is a very diverse and challenging group of behaviors! I want to share a recent training concept that has strongly engaged participants and addresses the HBR problems and some other, often ignored, concerns we have all seen. First, the grumpy article.

  1. Training concentrates too much on concepts and hypothetical challenges and does not incorporate (even in live exercises!) the living context of the participant. Hence when back in the workplace all that lovely training experience seems irrelevant and can't be put into play. (This is the bulk of the HBR argument).
  2. But there's more! Based on change work I've done with numerous executives and entrepreneurs, there are also deeper presence and skill issues. To wit:
  3. Is your heart in the game? A nice way of asking if you are comfortable claiming authority, without crippling reservations or nagging confidence gaps or internal criticisms? Personal vulnerability is way more common than high-end journals would say because they prefer a tough guy tone. (sad but true).
  4. Assuming all is good with confidence, what about verbal skills regarding the problem domain and issuing leadership guidance? At the earlier stages, many directors, for example, have limited experience and hence comfort and skill in spit-balling strategies or project contingencies, wrangling priority policies and all the required give and take. These verbal skills take extended time and exercise to bring to game level. But with simple intervention (invented here) that time can be shortened.
  5. Often verbally smart and confident leaders have never learned how to relate to or engage a diverse team, how to give a mission some emotional meaning that energizes. How to speak dramatically about a critical problem to enhance response (as opposed to just ranting!).
  6. Are they connected to the craft of leadership? There exist many templates, skill sets, learning strategies that are utterly pragmatic. Mostly they come from the performance world. Such resources are much more more useful than "Just do it!" or "start acting like a leader" (death trap slogans that often kill progress)

I call points 3 to 6 the foundations of pragmatic leadership. When encountered in sequence, the participant gets a surprising burst of insight, optimism, and motivation to make progress. Suddenly they feel it all makes sense. Oh, and - through it all - the participant presents, discusses and role-plays his real context. That will also satisfy HBR.

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Roy Terry

Roy Terry is the founder and principal consultant for Words & Presence, a leadership training and coaching practice in Silicon Valley, California.

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