Insight By CoachReady

Why does Leadership Development fail?

Comunicación, Leadership Development
the forest of leadership development
Photo: the forest of leadership development

I was curious about the many ways people who I interact with, refer to Leadership in the most different situations and contexts. How has this term come to define so many different things while trying to have them all synthesized under one term? How did that expectation influence what organizations are anticipating to receive when hiring Leadership Development Consultants or programs? Let us enter this forest of Leadership Development..

Keywords: Leadership Development | Reading time: 10 min

Using any search engine to look up Leadership Development will result in discovering millions of entries around the subject. Curious about the results those programs deliver, I was still more surprised by many articles referring to the limited efficacy or plain failure in relation to what was expected.

Leadership as a concept has been around for a sufficiently long time as to be pretty clear about what it involves, right? Well, if that is so, where is the gap between what is expected and what is achieved given the myriad of Leadership Development programs offered around the world? It is such a wide and deep subject, when explored, that it allows for many diverse interpretations and understandings at both sides of the Leadership Development Contracting Relation.

Leadership has become the all involving term for quite different development purposes. From the clients view, what is the definition of Leadership to be developed, and what are the programs offered to support that development? Is there enough time devoted for researching and understanding what kind of leadership the client hopes to promote and multiply among its executive ranks? How clear, actually, is the distinction between Management and Leadership in the effectiveness assumptions of those who use the service?

Even further, how relevant or not is the distinction if what is actually expected is an improved version of ” Bossing”?

Several years ago, possibly together with the emergence of what is called the Knowledge Society, a trend of new requirements to deal with social change emerged as well. Suddenly it seemed that Management was not enough to run business anymore. It needed to upgrade itself to Leadership through acquisition of a new palette of behavioral skills. So businesses started requiring executives to become leaders in order to achieve results. Employees started referring to their bosses as “my leader”. People managing a new project would be named Project Leader, and many functional behaviors previously called Management turned into Leadership. Linguistic and meaning confusion helped its part, and Management Training pretended to evolve into Leadership Development. It boomed as a service and the search for providers of this services as well.

Yet, in my own experience, after several years of listening to thousands of strategic executives at every hierarchical level and range complain about the lack of leadership of their superiors, we can only ask ourselves what happened with the billions already invested in Leadership development programs all over the world. It seems these programs do either not work, or they simply do not create sustainable leadership capacities in the persons who enter those programs.


Leadership development programs may fail because of three central reasons:


  1. They do not approach the heart of the matter in their content.
  2. They do not generate and deliver the content in the right context or dynamics
  3. Both of the above simultaneously.

How come and why? I will not pretend to give a unique answer to such a complex matter but I will propose mine here, and let us explore further. Gregory Bateson said that most of the problems we face as a species arise from the difference between how nature works and how we humans think. Thus, our rational assumptions of what makes leadership work are mostly wrong.

We may be forgetting our human nature when creating Behavioral Change Programs with just performance results in mind as an objective.

We may fall into different thought traps, mostly through distorted semantics, or “new words for old meanings” (e.g.: way too often we hear “Human Capital” and “Headcount” in the same phrase).

We may think that pointing the benefits of modifying attitudes or behaviors, people will immediately be willing to change for their own good. Yet, unfortunately, that does not happen.

We may think that if we learn the behavioral techniques that make us act, appear and be looked at in a certain way, we will impact in others so as to make them behave differently than previously. Unfortunately, this is not the way it works.

When you look at most of the usual Leadership Development Programs, you can detect quite fast, that the content approaches a functional perspective. They do so in order to TRAIN managers to improve their leadership behaviors, instead of INSPIRING the discovery and surfacing the of the genuine human leadership connection in those executives with a vocation for it.

The very core question and reflection is what for you are doing what you do.

Are you looking at what you do from a receiving perspective (what do I get from this) or are you doing it from a contributing perspective (what benefit do the others get from this)? This defines and changes it all, regardless if you are the HR executive, the coach or consultant, the participant in the leadership program.

As an HR executive, are you deeply willing to give each individual the opportunity to find his unique leadership assets, or do you want to fulfill the leadership development objectives agreed in the yearly plans agreed with your colleagues?

As a coach, do you really want to help every single participant to connect with her or his own nature and discover the ways in which they naturally influence and impact in their teams and life stakeholders, or do you want to deliver what the contracting proposal required by the client established in order to keep the commercial relation fluent?

As a participant of a leadership program, do yo want to really unfold your nature in order to give the best of yourself in connection to what each of your team members needs to work in a more meaningful and committed way, or do you want to apply learned techniques in order to get them to deliver the planned business results?

If you tend to relate more to the first option in each question, there is nothing right or wrong with it. But please become aware of it. Strategies do not fail because they are wrong. They fail because they are inconsistent, declaring one thing but intimately expecting or doing another. If you expect stronger Management, that is great. But do not call it a Leadership Development Program. Call it a Management Training program. The differences are subtle but powerful. Just check the skills worked on in usual leadership programs.

Listening skills? Trust Building skills? Strategic Vision-promoting Abilities? Communication skills? Resources administration? Conflict solving? Every soft and thought skill available? Yes and yes – yes to all !

Now, what is the underlying purpose of that development? What for do we want to listen better? What for do we want to create a shared vision and for whose intimate benefit? Would we listen in order to see what drives that worker so as to get the best out of him for the companies interest, or would we like participants to really empathize with someone else as a person?

Do we want to promote the strategic vision the board has defined, thus complying with our superiors directives, or do we want to create a shared team vision that has everybody getting out of bed in the morning knowing and wanting to do what everyone around is willing to achieve?

Do we want to learn how to inform more and better down the ranks, (something most bosses claim as done when faced with a new climate survey that shows communication in the last places) or do we really want to open a two or multiple way of real communication, so that everyone feels listened to?

Do we want to manage resources by reducing staff and getting everybody to cut Capex on a steady ongoing basis, or do we want to create new sources and streams of benefit by fostering creativity and innovative thinking?

In short, do we want to lead in order to receive quick returns or to give long term improvement? The receiving or contributing perspective changes it all. The getting perspective will unavoidably turn into an executives functional improvement approach. They will learn skills and techniques. The contributing perspective will most probably deliver an executives transformational and evolutionary journey that allows to understand what unique personal virtues are inspiring and liked by followers.

Please think about this for a moment: The paradoxical failure of Leadership Development Programs is that they focus too much on The Leader, and too little on what makes human professionals choose to become followers

Leadership is not about GETTING leaders attributes and practicing behaviors.

Leadership is not about learning a set of attitudes, a set of new behaviors, a set of new techniques.

Leadership is not about Training in order to get other peoples response to our needs.

Real Leadership is not something you train. It is something you help discover, or re-discover within, and give out to influence and inspire others, who will freely choose to become followers.

It is about GIVING what each individual holds for good, regardless of the fact that two leaders may have opposing views of this, the central point being the underlying honest belief and authenticity with which they practice their views.

It is about sharing driving values and understanding how differing values may bring diversity in the teams cooperative attitudes, and promoting that each one gets into his or her natural path of contribution.

It is about clarifying ethics understood as the shared ways and rules of interaction.

It is about promoting respect for others, for their doubts and fears, in such a way that the leader can help in generating the courage in others for acting despite fear.

It is giving one’s own knowledge to propose a vision and an understanding from which the team or company members may disagree or not, and keeping on evolving that vision until it is agreed and shared.

Leadership is about contributing ones own self to a creative and transforming purpose, and in its deep, true honesty promote an energy which becomes inspiring for others.

Leadership is about trust, straightforwardness and transparency. It requires the intellectual honesty that unfolds credibility

Leadership is about connecting with what makes us human. Connecting with others by knowing the basic needs of relation, appreciation, recognition.

It is about being able to understand the human condition. To knowing that effective commitment to ultimate shared purposes is a matter of generosity, compassion and love.

Purpose is all about meaning, and meaning is about care of others. Care of what is important to them.


Is there a solution for approaching Leadership Development in a sustainable way?


Of course. Mostly everything has a solution. First thing is being clear of what you are really hoping for. Look for the right questions rather than the quick answers.

Fast or rhythmically? Better direction or increased influence? Management or Leadership? Economic results or cultural transformation? Professional effectiveness or personal growth? Now, how do you create the spaces of time and discovery for those aspects to seed, nourish and flourish in a world ruled by quarterly earnings reports?

It is important to make up ones own mind regarding real possibilities. Do you have the time and economic resources? Then go for a well tailor-made program for an, at least, mid term one-to-one transformational leadership program. Some cost way less than you might expect and are way more effective. Should you need quick behavioral attitudes that make better bosses, go for a management education or training program. Management programs can be well delivered and deployed in shorter time spaces.

Are you ready to receive challenges to your perspectives in order to get to the real transforming needs, or do you prefer to have “polite box-tickers” as ideal suppliers? Look for fundamentals. Choose the suppliers who fit what they promise, and can explain, not only from their own experience as managers and leaders, but also from strong and sound theoretical perspectives, why what they propose will work. Pay attention to the fact that empathy, trust, meaning, compassionate realism, ethics, courage, fear, love, are all fundamental aspects of what it means to be human, and requires to be addressed with according care. Quite too often those who only explain the dynamics that tick the boxes are chosen and the results give origin to what I deal with in this article.

Pay special attention to what the suppliers are asking themselves. Are they just politely taking notes and agreeing to everything or are they mostly concerned with the mid to long term sustainability of what they will be helping to transform?

I would be more than happy to exchange with you and reflect on this thoughts. If you feel like it please let me know at [Thomas Köttner – Managing Partner and Coaching Program Strategy Director at CoachReady]

Insight By CoachReady July 23, 2019
Categories: Comunicación, Leadership Development
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