The Perils of Leadership Training

Ever work for a bad boss?  You know how badly your team can suffer.  Morale, productivity, initiative – down the tubes.

Ever work for a great boss?  You know how your team can soar.

And yet – despite the dramatic difference the quality of the leader makes – most companies don’t make leadership development a priority.  It’s a conundrum.  But we think we know why.

As it’s commonly practiced, “leadership development,” or “management training,” simply doesn’t work. In a day or two, you can learn a computer program, but you can’t become a better leader.  If a one-day seminar or even a week-long retreat could turn bad managers into good ones, companies would be all over them.  The ROI would be astronomical.  But how often have you seen your weak boss come back from a workshop a changed person?

People do not change overnight.  Here’s how Richard Farson says it, in Management of the Absurd, which leadership guru Tom Peters calls “maybe the best book on leadership I’ve ever read”:

People can make lasting changes only through a commitment to a continuing discipline.  For example, crash diets don’t work, but a permanent modification of one’s eating habits does.  The same is true in management.  Lasting change comes only from the adoption of sound management principles practiced on a continuing basis.  There are no quick fixes.

Those “sound management principles” primarily involve emotional intelligence skills – self-awareness, self-management, interpersonal awareness, and relationship management.  The brain structures involved here – primarily the limbic system – take longer to “train” than muscles or simpler cognitive skills.

And yet it can be done.  For proof, read Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking books, Emotional Intelligence or Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence Here’s the key:

Leadership development has to be seen as a process, not an event. The process is a spiral that looks roughly like this:  insights –> reflection –> new practice –> feedback.

The container for that spiral must be a supportive and challenging community that demands accountability.  And the content – the raw material for the process – must be real work challenges.

This process, of course, takes place over time – time for new experiments to produce results, time for feedback to be internalized into new practices, time for new practices to replace old habits.

An intensive leadership retreat?  Without disciplined, long-term follow-up, you might as well forget it.  For one thing, a retreat is a setting removed from the real world.  Regardless of how inspiring and energizing the experience is, when the participant returns to the real world, she faces the tremendous gravity pull of her old demands, her old habits, and the culture in which she’s embedded – a culture that doesn’t support the new way-of-being the retreat encouraged.  And usually, no support structure exists for carrying those inspiring retreat learnings forward.

So what’s the answer?  Honest, authentic, effective leadership development is a long-term process in which participants live consistently in the spiral described above.  How much does that happen in your organization?

YOUR PATH FORWARD: Reflect on how leaders are “trained” in your organization.  Do the vehicles used support – and challenge – the participant to make sustainable changes, over time, to how they show up as a leader?  Are your leaders consistently:

  • developing insights around what it takes to be a great leader, and specifically where they’re falling short?
  • putting these new insights into practice, applying them to current work challenges?
  • receiving honest feedback from all stakeholders on the results of these practices?
  • reflecting consistently on all of the above to develop new insights and new practices on how to lead better?
  • embedding all of this in a supportive and challenging community of peers dedicated to their own and each others’ learning?

If you can answer yes to all these questions, I bet your leadership culture is stunningly healthy, and your organization is both successful and a great place to work.

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

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