Why leadership development programs do not work

Why leadership development programs do not work

If one would have learnt by just reading books, all those who have read Bhagwat Geeta would have become as adept and achieving as Arjuna.

If listening lectures could have transformed human beings, all those who sit through sermons would have become saints. 

On the one hand surveys report a measly percentage of MBAs being ready for employment. On the other, leading business dailies report how premier B-schools are attracting managers, with baseless promises of turning them into leaders.

What slow-down are we speaking off? This is not new. For centuries we have been wasting precious leadership development funds on pipe dreams: send them to a branded school and they will come back as cutting edge leaders. What happened after they came back to their workplace? What value did they create? What quantum leap did they take their respective organization through after having attained leadership nirvana?

All talk about ROI and painstaking efforts of learning officers aimed towards calculating it, are seemingly more directed towards keeping their jobs intact. Nothing, much has been done to show how the current paradigm of ‘content-in, leadership-out’ development is not only ineffective but grossly flawed. Nothing much has been done to highlight that, to develop an individual to take on leadership or any other role, it needs specialist abilities to enable the process of learning, not just subject- matter-expertise and academic qualification to roll out content. In fact the latter is often a hurdle. It is more likely to make the teacher / trainer stupidly arrogant about the position he / she adorns and the ego bloated with prefixes and suffixes that embellish his /her name. This unquestionably is a dis-qualification for anyone who claims to be a facilitator / enabler of learning.

What puzzles me, ROI or no ROI, despite the futility of such programs to deliver tangible results being proven over ages, why do we continue faltering again and again in choosing wrong leadership development strategies and making wasteful investments in them? Why do we not, for once, stop, look around, consult those who are specialists and then decide on a strategy that can bring business impact out of leadership development?

There is one more reason for leadership development programs to not work. Assuming the process of learning and development is done right; those who come to learn find a huge chasm between what they learn and what they are expected to practice as leadership. Look underneath the veneer of leadership glory talked about in seminars. What do you get to see day in and day out being practiced, particularly in business organizations? Passing the buck? False agreements? Scapegoating?  Thermometer management of symptoms with short terms fixes? Strategic short changing of customers and employees? And everything that can help a manager cover his / her back side? There may be exceptions and that is worse. The leader-to-be is utterly confused. Which to follow? The exception or the rule? What will be more socially acceptable at workplace?

Learning happens through an intricate interplay of three elements: enablement, engagement and environment. While enablement can still happen effectively, quality of engagement (at least on paper) can also be ensured through elaborate role definition and fixing of KRAs, how would one deal with an environment full of inconsistencies in practices? Also between what is preached and what is practiced? The aspiring leader comes back to work, developed in the workshop, more alien than ever. He does not have an environment to apply all that he has learnt. He is not supported by the informal social fabric prevailing in the organization to practice the leadership values he has imbibed. He is better off going back to where he was before he went for the leadership development program. After all he has a family to feed and a quarter dozen mortgages to pay for.   


  • Making Leadership Work |
    Posted at 09:50h, 27 January Reply

    […] couple of weeks back I had written this post – Why Leadership Development Programs do not Work – and had shared it on social media too. Barring one reactive comment, saying who says it does not […]

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