The Three Myths of Leadership Development


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Article by Sheila Repeta with Jim Finkelstein

FutureSense explores the three fundamental assumptions that organizations have long held onto that lead to ineffective leadership development.

According to a May 2014 report by Bersin (1), organizations continue upping the ante on their leadership development spending. Towering past $15 billion in the US alone, organizations continue to spend large sums of money, and perhaps of even more value, with large amounts of time invested into their leadership development efforts. This commitment demonstrates that organizations are starting to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to leadership development, but are these programs effective? Do they work?00 finkelstein march

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and the Human Capital Institute (HCI) put together a 2014 survey assessing the ROI of leadership development, and reported only 21% of senior leaders were satisfied with their bench strength. (2) A 2010 McKinsey study reported that only a quarter of organizations they assessed said their “programs are effective at improving performance measurably”. (3) Despite spending billions of dollars (and countless hours), report after report tells us that the answer to the question of leadership program effectiveness leaves us with a resounding “ n o ”.

In building some of these leadership models and development plans, there are three fundamental assumptions that organizations have long held on to which lead to ineffective programs. These myths are:

• Leadership development is knowledge
• Leadership development should happen only with the top leaders
• Leadership development is about learning, not asking

MYTH ONE: Leadership Development Is Knowledge

While we see inspirational quotes and posters indicating the power of “being” a leader, organizational approaches to developing leaders has remained highly “intellectualized” over the years. Many, if not most, leadership development efforts are “event driven” – focused on a survey, assessment, retreat, or training where participants engage in contemplation, practice in isolation, or even formulate leadership action plans. This thought leadership approach seldom translates into action and change.

This intellectualization of leadership only addresses the “mind” component of leadership. Adult learning theories (such as Noel Burch and others) have long demonstrated that to develop new competencies takes significant mental AND emotional effort. It is critical to shift efforts to a leadership development program or model that accounts for both the intellectual knowledge base, as well as the emotional capacity to engage in making changes. And it is not just making changes for change sake; leaders must want to make changes because their current leadership methods aren’t exactly working.

MYTH TWO: Leadership Development Should Happen Only With the Top Leaders

When organizations go about putting together their leadership development plans or models, they frequently have the executive leadership team do the heavy lifting. It is mission critical to leverage the strength of this team to align the leadership plan with the business objectives. But, by stopping at the executive level, the critical competencies that the organization needs to be successful cannot be fully understood.

The best way to understand the demands and needs of your organization is to go straight to your middle management and get their feedback. This provides benefits that are two-fold: it not only allows you to build your leadership development plan, but also creates developmental opportunities for your high potential leaders. Conger & Fulmer of Harvard Business Review comment, “Succession management must be a flexible system oriented toward developmental activities, not a rigid list of high-potential employees and the spots they might fill.” (4) When you engage your mid-level managers in the process, you build a stronger model – and create the possibility of engagement and competency development down your leadership pipeline.

And not only getting middle management feedback, but actually having them do the heavy lifting will help determine the competencies they need for the organization to be successful in reaching business outcomes. Middle management wants the opportunity to do the heavy lifting and the top leaders need to let them.

Middle managers are in the challenging role of not only having to lead, but also being led. Being pulled in two different directions typically gives them a strong sense of the competencies needed from their leadership team to help meet business objectives. When selecting the team from whom you will get feedback, it’s important to choose your star performers, who are in critical roles in the organization with a wide breadth of responsibility. This builds engagement in the leadership process throughout multiple layers of the organization, and strengthens your succession planning. That is how to grow future leaders.

MYTH THREE: Leadership Development is About Learning Not Asking00 finkelstein march 1

The inception of many well-intentioned leadership development programs begins with lining up the business objectives and talking through the competencies needed to achieve those outcomes. The crux of these programs is change – change in behavior, people, processes, and procedures. To effectively change, leaders must be mindful of the organizational culture. Cameron and Quinn (authors of Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture) explain that the “most frequently cited reason given for failure [in change] was a neglect of the organization’s culture.” (5)

How do organizations get to talking about culture? By asking the hard questions. The first two critical questions that must be asked to begin the conversation: “What is working?” and “What is missing?”

However, many organizations fail to take the time to address a third and perhaps more important question in order to develop a truly efficient leadership development plan and explore the “hidden culture”. The best question to explore these practices is “What is unspoken?”

John Coleman of Harvard Business Review notes that one of the six elements of a good organizational culture is “practices”. (6) While an organization has stated values that comprise the culture, the actual practices become the foundation of the “real vs. ideal” culture. We know that many issues, concerns and elements of an organization’s culture emerge in the inability to “practice what we preach”.

While this can be the most difficult question to ask, and can likely expend priceless political capital, failure to ask this question and address the responses in a productive and open discussion can leave your leadership development plan right where it started. Failure to tackle the unspoken issues among leadership and staff ultimately stifles change.

When looking to invest your time, money, and resources into building your leadership development plan, take the time at the start to ask the right questions and to develop a model that considers both the intellect and the emotion. Then apply it beyond the top tier of your organization to create lasting and effective change.





(5) Cameron, K., & Quinn, R. (2011). Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture Based on the Competing Values Framework. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.



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