The End of Leadership Development?

28 Feb

I have a radical hypothesis. I think it’s possible that the real reason leadership development (LD) programs fail is because we don’t actually need them. Now, experts would have us believe that there are tactical reasons why our LD efforts fail (see here), but I suspect that a small problem got worse when we created an industry around it. For someone like me, who makes a living on being a LD expert, this isn’t easy to admit. But, like any addiction, the first step to recovery is accepting that we have a problem. Let me explain.

Leadership development is a $170 billion dollar industry with organizations spending about $14 billion annually (see here and here). This investment isn’t surprising given our need for new forms of leadership to cope with the increasing globalization and technological change (here). In fact, going back to the 1940’s, LD has always been about teaching individuals how to adapt to their environment (here). Fast forward to today, 70 years later, and we are starting to realize that our billions might not be buying us very much.

Recent studies found that only about 25% of organizations think their leadership development programs are effective (here). Additionally, leadership quality ratings, which have never been very high, have not improved since 2006. In fact, only 18% of HR professionals feel their companies have the quality of leaders needed to run their companies three years out (here). It gets worse because organizations with the worst LD programs spent 60% more money on them (here). Even if you are highly skeptical of these statistics and you exclude any single report, the collective data tells a compelling story: the quality of leaders isn’t great and leadership development isn’t helping.

What is happening? Well, I think the problem starts with our assumptions about leadership. Our management model comes directly from the industrial revolution. Despite all of the technological innovations that have occurred in the last 100 years, management technology, if we can think of it as a technology, is out of date. Like the combustion engine, it’s a technology that has largely stopped evolving. Our command-and-control management is being radically challenged by decentralization, free agency, and mobile technologies (read this, this, this, this, and maybe this too). These changes require us to radically rethink LD itself. In short, I think we should do four things:

  • Focus on performance support. Performance support tools that give access to internal databases and reports might not be as sexy as a three-day retreat, but putting the most relevant information in employee’s hands at the right time will do a lot for leadership performance…even if it means we are less involved. In fact, my research on mobile leadership development (see here) shows that performance support currently makes up about 96% of all mobile leadership apps. I would expect that trend to extend beyond mobile applications.
  • Maximize traditional approaches. Despite the hype about e-learning and mobile learning, traditional face-to-face programs won’t go away (see here). Programs are more than just gaining information. They provide access to new networks, structured learning environments, and career-advancing credentials. All of which are inherent advantages over e-learning platforms. And if performance support tools replace some skill-based training, in-person programs can leverage their natural advantages.
  • Teach new leadership models. The nature of leadership is changing and we to tell people. The rise of the “network leader” shifts power to the person who is most relevant not the person with the most formal authority (see here). Everyone will need personal branding, knowledge management, and iterative project management skills. These new competencies can support the development of others. Just like an evolutionary algorithm, they are self-perpetuating practices that get us out of trying to predict what employees need to know.
  • Embed developmental processes. Take a play from the iterative approaches like Design Thinking, Agile development, and Lean Start-up and focus on adaptation. This shift from programs to processes means less reliance on LD programs, because individuals and teams have embedded learning processes. Examples of these include GE’s Workout process, the Army’s After Action Reviews, and Integrative Decision Making. By embedding learning processes into the DNA of the organization or team, leadership development becomes an implicit part of the work itself.

Globalization and technology are radically changing the nature of leadership and learning. We need to make some big adjustments and I think it’s possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is not just to create new programs, but to change our assumptions about LD itself.


4 Responses to “The End of Leadership Development?”

  1. johnrenesch March 6, 2014 at 1:20 am #

    Chris, here’s another take on LD (see “The Folly of Leadership Development.”

    • chrcowan March 6, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

      Thanks John! Yep, you piece is a great set of quotes, research, and insights. Too often when I complain about the current state of the leadership development industry people assume that I’m trying to make it better. In fact, I suspect that the solution is deeper structural changes to the organization itself. I read Laloux’s book and saw your testimonial and completely agree. For myself, I’m getting more involved in Holacracy (as one example of a deeper organizational change) because the core issue is that we’ve given leaders a poor system to use. We can spend decades and billions of dollars trying to make the “user” better (oh wait, we already have…), when it would actually be more effective to make the system itself more user friendly. Let’s catch up again soon! 🙂

      • JayanWarrier March 7, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

        What an interesting article Chris. Thank you. I was in the LD function for some time in the past and I was thinking what was my ‘real’ goal in developing leadership programs. I figured out the following:
        1. Make sure leadership candidates enjoy the program
        2. They give a good feedback after the program
        3. Ensure spending within the budget
        4. Make sure the performance measurement criteria is in place for ROI
        5. Ensure I have a rollout plan that I can present in the next meeting and results of participation two quarters later
        6. and many more

        I believe the same was true throughout the organisation. Still there are people who got lot of value from those programs personally and professionally. Those who were ready, they had some transformational experiences.

        It is interesting that you still recommend teaching new leadership models in your recommendations, thought the title implies end of leadership development.

        My thought at this point of time is we have enough program teaching skills and tools. May be we should spend more time creating space for people to experience being truly human – in conversations, getting to know the neighbours and peers, dreaming big about our future as an organization/community/the world, committing wholeheartedly for actions. Then leadership will evolve individually and collectively.

        Thanks again for this thought provoking proposition, Chris!

      • chrcowan March 7, 2014 at 9:22 pm #

        Thanks Jayan!

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