If most Leadership Development programmes fail, why bother?


November 8th, 2013


A recent post by Ray Williams on Psychology Today made a cogent, and provocative, argument as to Why Leadership Development Fails to Produce Good Leaders, suggesting that the focus of development programmes is wrong.

Williams offers substantial evidence and data, citing:

Dominated by me, with the figurehead CEO, this is still the common pattern in many organisations

The typical leadership team, and CEO? Men dominate, led by the archetypal ‘Heroic Leader’…

  • Failure rates of Chief Executives in the past 20 years (30% of Fortune 500 chief execs last under 3 years, top executive failure rates are as high as 75% and rarely drop below 30%).
  • Hubris, ego and a lack of emotional intelligence.
  • Gender: men tend to over-confidence, thus compounding the problem as senior positions are more often filled by males.

A key point in Williams’ argument is this:

“What it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well. As a result, too many incompetent people are promoted to management jobs, and promoted over more competent people.”

This, coupled with our notions of what makes for a ‘good leader’, is a recipe for the failure of leadership development programmes. Here we come to another barrier to effective, relevant leadership development. In 2000, MIT research identified three ‘pathologies’ that may account for this pattern.

  • “The ownership is power mind-set” – in essence the conventional model of command & control and cause & effect as a leadership style. This is at odds with the reality of modern day organisations, which, as human systems, are complex, relational and fluid, requiring emergent and collaborative leadership, and where responsibility is shared.
  • “The productisation of leadership development” – or the ‘Oh look new bright shiny thing! I want that one now…’ approach; newness and novelty is given primacy over relevance and utility.
  • “Make-believe metrics” – measurement of a programme is divorced from the questions an organisation really needs answers to. For example, numbers of people attending programmes and achieving particular competency scores are meaningless if not linked to the purpose of the organisation, and/or behaviour change that supports it.

And here we hit another problem, and one of the key flaws in conventional thinking: “initiatives that cannot be measured have no value”. Soft skills – relational intelligence, rapport building, influencing, collaboration, awareness of the social aspects of organisational life – don’t tend to feature much in metrics. And that is flawed thinking (something I will expand on in a follow up to this post).

I would add a fourth pathology: the projection onto ‘leadership development’ as being the answer in and of itself, which is implicit in the title of Williams’ post. William Tate, adds weight to this argument, quoting Alimo-Metcalfe et al (2000) in ‘The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective’ (2009):

Although leadership development programmes courses may assist individuals in their self-development, their impact upon organisations is, at best, inconclusive, and may indeed be negative if they result in an increase in cynicism towards the organisation

Tate goes on to construct a coherent argument for this pattern of failure. Conventional thinking around leadership and developing leaders “miss the main point”:

The main player – the ubiquitous, powerful and ever-present ‘elephant in the room’ that nobody wants to acknowledge, is… the organisation itself.

It is the relationship between leaders, leadership and the organisation that needs to be acknowledged, understood and explored.

What does this mean for you?

If you are thinking about leadership development, where does this leave you? Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What do you define as leadership, and what are these behaviours in service of?
  2. What is your organisations relationship to/with leadership?
  3. How will you measure impact the impact of developing your leaders, at individual, team and organisational levels?

One more thing…

Relative to the above three questions, there is a key issue that Williams raises and does not tackle head on: what do we mean by ‘failure’, and what, organisationally, is our degree of comfort with ‘being wrong’? This is a live issue, for example, in the NHS. I recently heard someone in a senior Organisational Development Role in a foundation trust point out that the average tenure of an NHS Chief Exec is now under three years and falling, and attributed this to a systemic inability to allow leaders to make mistakes.

It is in this context that what we do at Roffey Park has relevance. We place leadership development in a systemic and relational context, developing the capacity of individuals to adapt and learn on an on-going basis, not just for the duration of a programme. For leadership development is not an isolated event, it is an intervention at a particular point in time, and is best seen as the start of a journey rather than an end in and of itself.

If you want to find out more about our approach, and why leadership development at Roffey Park is effective, get in touch.