Leadership training is a sham? Really?

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Written by Paul Matthews on 19 March 2014
I saw this comment on a recent blog, and it got me thinking.
 
“Leadership training is often just management training iced over with a thin layer of superficial, non-nutritious nonsense about ‘being a leader’.”
 
If this is true then it is something of an ‘emperor’s clothes’ moment.
 
So here are a few thoughts that occurred to me when I read this, even if they are little irreverent and provocative :-)
 
I thought back to the many conversations I have had over the years with people who have delivered, designed, implemented, purchased or been consumers of leadership development programmes.
 
There was a common theme for all those programmes, which is actually a little disturbing. Most of them did not deliver the benefits in full that they were designed to deliver. In fact, many of them delivered rather poorly and probably did not break even from a hard-nosed return on investment perspective. Some muddled through and certainly helped the organisation. One or two delivered very well, and it is these relatively rare programs that do work wonders that become the poster child for leadership development as an industry.
 
Another interesting common theme for all those programmes is that many people who were on the Learning & Development side of the fence, claimed success. And yet in the same organisation, people on the business side of the fence said that the programme added little value and did not fulfil the promises made.
 
And that brings me to another interesting common thread. Who made the promises? In most cases the promises were actually extracted almost under duress from L&D based on what the business wanted. That is, somebody in the business decided that better leadership would solve some pressing business problem, and so demanded leadership development. L&D would deliver this wonderful leadership programme, and all these happy new leaders would swoop in with their capes flying and solve the business problem.
 
Here is another common factor. In almost every case, the leadership development programme was aimed at a segment of the organisation’s management structure where it was felt the leadership gap was the biggest. This segment was seldom the senior team, because after all, they were probably the ones demanding better leadership from the rest of the organisation. So, the next couple of levels down in the pyramid were sent off to get tooled up with leadership skills.
 
And again, and other common factor; the programme was run in isolation, independent of and unsupported by any other programmes. So even if the leadership programme was successful, and upgraded the leadership abilities and skills of managers to where they could wear their new billowing cape and shiny underpants with pride, nothing was being done to enable people to follow them.
 
One of the ways that you spot a leader when you are out with your binoculars leader-spotting is that they have followers. A leader without followers is simply someone walking their path alone, and this has little benefit to the organisation. If there are significant barriers that stop people following a leader, that leader has to be absolutely extraordinary in order to generate within people sufficient motivation for them to break through those barriers, and follow. It is far easier to reduce the barriers in the way of followers, because then you do not need extraordinary leaders. People will happily follow an average leader if they do not have to walk over broken glass to do so.
 
It is probably more cost-effective, and has a higher probability of success, to focus on removing the barriers that are currently stopping people in your organisation following the leaders you already have. And what is even more interesting, is that if you make it easier for people to follow leaders in an organisation, more leaders will ‘put their head above the parapet’ because it is worth doing so. There are many hidden leaders in all organisations.
 
What are the barriers? They come in many guises but often the biggest one is the working environment that surrounds people and hinders them from doing what they need to do when they are trying to support the organisation, and its vision.
 
I encourage you to think first about enabling followers before investing in trying to create leaders.
About the author
Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy. He can be contacted via www.peoplealchemy.co.uk
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