The End of Leadership Development: From the Factory to the Greenhouse

22 Jan

I have a radical hypothesis. Is it possible that the real reason why leadership development programs fail is because we don’t actually need them? Is it possible that we’ve inserted ourselves into a process that we have no business in? Traditional experts would like you to believe that there are all sorts of tactical reasons why our efforts to create better leaders fails (see here), but I’m starting to suspect that was once a small problem got a lot worse when the leadership development industry got created. Let me explain.


Organizational boundaries are like glass. Employees can see right through them. They will stay only if its a good place to grow.

The best metaphor I can come up with for the future workplace is a greenhouse. Our current management model comes from the industrial revolution in which managers focused on improving the factory’s efficiency. Even today, many companies still focus on efficiency and logistics. They measure, measure, measure, and write reports and we analyze and predict. People are getting really excited about Big Data in HR and the truth is….it’s all bullshit (well it may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient). OK, maybe it’s not ALL bullshit, but it’s mostly bullshit. It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Sure that chair might be out of place and sure we might be about to measure the exact layout of the deck and the size of the chairs and come up with an optimum layout, but we would be missing the big problem…our ship is sinking.

The big problem for us is simply that human beings (and even more so social systems) are inherently chaotic and non-linear. Therefore, we simply cannot accurately predict or control how they will behave. No doubt you’ve heard, “a butterfly flaps its wings in New York and there is a hurricane in Japan,” or some variation. The point is simply that we shouldn’t blame the butterfly for the hurricane. In fact, there would be absolutely no way of ever making that connection empirically (see Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, 2006). And yet, people seem to have a real problem with acknowledging this in our work (known in philosophy as the problem of induction). Now, on a psychological level, we are all prone to make these inductive errors in judgment, but for precisely this reason we should be very careful about assuming the precision of our models. What does all of this mean for our work? Well, a few things.

Evolution of a young plant

We can do lots of things, but we can’t make a plant grow. Only the right conditions and time can do that.

We don’t MAKE the plants grow. We simply set the conditions for them to grow and hopefully they grow. As Woody Allen said, “’Only God can make a tree,’ probably because it’s so hard to figure out how to get the bark on.” People are organic. Social systems are chaotic. Why in the world would we perpetuate the myth that we have any control over the learning or leadership process? It happens or it doesn’t happen, but we don’t micromanage it. All we can do is set the conditions for it to happen. We already know that most learning is informal and yet we keep pretending as if it wasn’t. Or if our little bit of formal learning (maybe 10%?) is actually really, really, really important. Managers, HR professionals, and learning “experts,” have been trying to interject themselves into the organic process because they want to get credit. If more people thought about this, then we could tackle the whole notion of corporate training and development in a completely new and more effective (and empowering way).

Think in terms of effectiveness not efficiency. I have come to hate the word “efficiency.” I used to think that effectiveness came first (you got something done) and then you worked on being efficient (you got the same thing done with less resources). It seems that most people still think this way (or at least the good ones, the bad ones don’t even realize the difference or the necessary sequence). The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that. At least not outside of highly structured mechanical systems (efficiency is important when you are talking about engineering problems, but organic systems are so focused on survival that they don’t have much time left over for discussions about efficiency). So, given this, I’d like to ban the word from our vocabulary. Certainly there is a lot of talk from the innovation and start-up community about “lean” approaches. I actually love these approaches, but by how I define the terms, they are actually focused on effectiveness not efficiency. In the real world, if you are playing the game to win, you never actually get a chance to move past effectiveness; the rules and the structures of social systems are never static or consistent.


Individuals want exactly what they want. Can’t provide that kind of learning customization? We know. Instead focus on what you can provide.

There is a move towards extreme personalization. I’ve been noticing this trend for years, but this really jumped out at me when I was doing my mobile leadership development research. As organizations integrate more and more information and more and more users they risk becoming more and more depersonalized. If the employees are now in the driver seat, then it isn’t enough to say, “Hey 90% of employees liked this,” because the other 10% are going to feel left out. This means that we need to focus more on building conditions that allow a variety of different individuals to flourish. One of the biggest problems with competencies is that they aren’t personalized. We err on the side of the organization rather than the employee. We need to create learning platforms that allow for the greatest personalization not the greatest “efficiency” (which I shall henceforth call, “the E word”). The greenhouse will allow the greatest number of employee to flourish. They will still need pruning and some won’t make it, but that’s the whole point. We’ll have more energy to focus on the gardening and less on trying to make the plants grow (which only the Universe can do). This also has big implications for technology, but I won’t get into that here.

The problem of induction can be moderated by approaching learning and leadership from the greenhouse, not the factory. I’m seeing more and more talk about Big Data in HR and I think this is a good example of where I think we are going wrong. Fundamentally, we can’t predict or control people, but that doesn’t mean that we should double-down on the “mechanical, linear, conventional, positivist, quantification, measurement-obsessed” approach. I think we need to realize that the solution requires a new type of thinking (other than the one that got us into this mess). A type of thinking that not only recognizes that we don’t know, but that we CAN’T know.


Big data is fascinating, but Moneyball approaches don’t apply to non-game systems. Even if they did, it’s not like baseball got rid of all their scouts.

Our models are always going to be hilariously inaccurate and yet we keep making predictions about hiring and performance (and almost everything in politics, finance, etc.) and we keep being wrong. I don’t think the solution is to keep coming up with new ways of predicting, but to take a sober look at our deep (and faulty) epistemological assumptions and move forward from there. We can make the situation better, but not by furthering the illusion that we have control (we don’t want that kind of responsibility anyway). This belief in turn actually makes us and our clients more vulnerable. In our lust for efficiency we seek out and destroy the types of redundancy and chaos that all organic systems need to survive and grow. The “Moneyball” approach might help with some small issues, but baseball still finds itself in the same situation it did before (Sabermetrics introduced a new tool, but didn’t solve the real problem). So, we can look at Big Data in HR and I’m sure we will learn some things. Awesome. There is no doubt that these analytics will become new standards, but while they may be necessary, they are not sufficient. Like the deckchairs, analytics isn’t going to solve the real problem. When we recognize that we can’t predict, we actually liberate ourselves. We have more energy and focus on the things that we can control.

We don’t make the plants grow and we don’t make someone a better leader. All we can do is set the conditions. Just because something can be learned doesn’t mean that it can be taught. Individuals have to figure things out for themselves. We should focus on providing the requisite structure and tools…and then leave well enough alone. I’m not advocating for nihilism, but a radical shift in how we think about our role in the change process.


The world’s medical experts used to believe in bloodletting.

Did you know that the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer, is iatrogenesis? What is this horrible word? It means the preventable harm caused by medical treatment. Think about that for a second. That means that we are killing roughly 220,000 people a year in our attempts to make them better. In fact, some medical historians have claimed that our medical treatments have only recently starting saving more people than they were killing. And it makes me wonder if this kind of arrogance comes from a discipline whose first principle is “do no harm,” then what kind of harm can we perpetuate in leadership development when we don’t even have that Hippocratic foundation? Is it possible that we are actually making leadership problems worse? Is it possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is actually to get rid of leadership development?

4 Responses to “The End of Leadership Development: From the Factory to the Greenhouse”

  1. Matt Holbert February 12, 2014 at 8:33 pm #


    I can connect with your thinking here. I particularly liked:

    “All we can do is set the conditions. Just because something can be learned doesn’t mean that it can be taught. Individuals have to figure things out for themselves. We should focus on providing the requisite structure and tools…and then leave well enough alone. I’m not advocating for nihilism, but a radical shift in how we think about our role in the change process.”

    One of the reasons that I can connect is that I recently attended a one-day workshop that was integrally informed and dealt with a method to improve organization performance. In the past few minutes I have been researching Holacracy and that was how I got to a comment of yours and clicked through to your blog. I’m asking myself if we need one more certification process in our lives. All I want to do is found an organization that contributes to sustainable living. Sustain-ablility is more about growing (greenhouses, etc.) than sitting in a boardroom getting yet one more expert’s version on optimal organization.

    I’ve been puzzled for several years because it seemed to me that we have actually been regressing in our overall personal development. (Some of this is based on the Clare Graves book that you edited.) Could it be that all this extra specialization has numbed our minds?

    Matt Holbert
    Spokane, WA

    • chrcowan February 13, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Matt. Personally, I don’t think we are regressing, it is just that we are struggling to see something flawed in our perspective. That is, it’s like we have a bug on our glasses and we are screaming, “Oh my God, look at that giant bug over there!!!” The reality is that our lens has a crack in it and we have to step back to really see it. Not an easy thing to do. I suspect that most leadership development stuff helps (it has certainly helped me), but when I step back and look….there are more accurate models of the world that we could be using. I do think that credentials are a tricky thing given the shift to individual branding and the need to stick out from an ever-crowded conversation. I don’t think credentials are bad…we all judge people by them….but they certainly aren’t the whole story. On that note, I should also tell you that I am not THE “Chris Cowan” from Spiral Dynamics although I’ve met with Don Beck and am very familiar with that model. 🙂

      • Matt Holbert February 13, 2014 at 8:33 pm #


        Thanks for your response. I realized that I had the wrong Chris when I delved into your blog a bit further. Oops…

        Since you are not THE Chris, I can expand on my Spiral Dynamics comment further. When Clare Graves was testing in the late 50’s or so, he determined that roughly 7% of his sample were at an integral level (or whatever he was calling it at the time). Today the figure that is 2%, although I recently heard someone — maybe Ken Wilber — say that it was 4%.

        It seems to me that individual branding can back you into a corner. (I first heard about individual branding in a publication by the business school that I attended. They were profiling Jason, the fat to skinny Subway spokesperson.) You have to stick with your particular model even though something better might come along. The trick, of course, is to build in flexibility.

        I’m wondering if you have heard about a new book, Reinventing Organizations, by Frederick Laloux? I heard about it on IntegralLife and downloaded a copy. I have found the book to be encouraging in that it profiles organizations that are operating from an integral level…

  2. chrcowan February 14, 2014 at 2:47 pm #

    Thanks Matt! I haven’t heard of the Revinventing Organizations book, but i just bought it…so I’m looking forward to reading it soon! 🙂

    Yeah, I’ve been working within developmental models for a while (I was a student of Robert Kegan at Harvard) and even going back to Kohlberg and Gilligan in moral development in terms of their stats….I’ve seen those numbers range all over, but I wouldn’t draw a conclusion that percentages going down…in what ever time frame we came up with….meant that development was regressing (if that is what you are alluding to). But again, that comes from my own mental model that the developmental trajectory, big picture and by definition, cannot regress. Even if specific studies or examples seem to suggest lower levels of development, I think that is just part of the colorful constellation of overlapping developmental stages.

    I agree about the persona branding piece, but again, I think it’s just a reality. The argument against being specific in your brand is that somehow if you aren’t clear who you are, then people can’t pigeonhole you. The reality is that we all make judgements about the expertise, credentials, branding, etc. whether or not that impression is intentional. So, to me, it is just a question of whether or not you want to steer that message or just let it be created for you. An example that comes to mind is a recent conversation I had with a colleague about offering coaching services. I asked, “so, what is your coaching model?” She responded, “well, I don’t have one model…I use lots of models.” So, if we pause the conversation right here…then you can maybe see the problem. She is not saying anything really. A simple question, but a very vague answer. So, after some conversation with her about it, she decided that it might be better to brand her coaching services as “multi-disciplinary,” rather than saying, “I don’t have a model.” A subtle but important difference I think.

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