What’s the Problem with Leadership Development and What’s the Answer in a Pandemic-stricken World?

Figures published last year[1] suggest that globally, organisations spend $366 billion annually trying to teach their leaders to be better. In most cases, they’re continuing to do so without any firm evidence of a return on their investment. And, by and large, they’re using the same techniques we’ve been using for centuries. Yes, we have superficial additions like PowerPoint, iPads and interactive whiteboards. But the approach is essentially the same as the approach taken in medieval universities[2]. And yet so much has moved on in the world of leadership, and in our understanding of how human beings – particularly adults – learn.

We now face an even greater challenge of delivering leadership development in a virtual world, where our leaders are locked down at home and under enormous short-term pressure to find a way out of the crisis, to engage their people, to save money and survive. Most of the traditional approaches to leadership development are even less relevant today than they were a few weeks ago.

As psychologist Kern Nowack[3] points out, we already know how to make it work but we fail to do what we know is right. We fail to follow best practice; we fail to use cutting-edge learning technologies – by which we don’t just mean chucking everything on the intranet; we fail to use practice to help people embed what they’ve learned; and we fail to adequately measure the impact of leadership development on the things it’s supposed to have an impact on.

One of the first problems with leadership development is we are not focused on making a difference to our stakeholders, but to the people we seek to develop. While we talk about leadership development, it’s often not leadership we’re developing – it’s individual leaders. The most common form of leadership development is to take people out of their working environment and develop them in isolation. Sure, there may be other people there from their organisation, but the attention is almost entirely on changing things within the individual people who are being developed at the time.

In doing so, we’re promoting a leadership myth: our inability to see that leadership is something that happens in relationships, not in individuals. Leadership happens in the relationship between a person and the people who follow them. It happens in the leader’s relationship with their environment, with the culture of the organisation around them, with its history, their predecessors, the people above them… leadership happens in the leader’s relationship with the people and the causes their leadership exists to serve.

We are losing track of the fact that in organisations the goal of leadership development should be, through the development of better leadership, to make a difference to the performance of the organisation that generates sustainable returns for its stakeholders ­– whether they be shareholders, customers, employees, donors, taxpayers, recipients of charitable or public services, or ultimately society itself.

Ultimately we need to build a view of leadership that, whilst it takes into account the current reality, isn’t limited by it, but understands the implications of the future direction and challenges of the organisation for leadership. But how do we do this when future direction is so uncertain?

Too much leadership development takes people out of the richest learning environment available – their place of work. They go to a hotel, they learn some good stuff, and then they’re dropped back into their natural habitat and left to get on with applying what they’ve learned. Immediately, the immune system around them kicks in, doing everything it can to maintain equilibrium and prevent the eager learner from changing anything – in themselves or the world around them.

We need to take the learning where the challenge is:

  • Real leadership challenges happen in the workplace (at the moment this might be at home!), so how can we do leadership development in the workplace, rather than in fancy hotels? If, as we believe, 70% of our work-related learning happens in the workplace[4], the future of leadership development should focus on making that process as efficient as possible.
  • Leadership development needs to be delivered at the right time. This is a difficult one, as who is to say what the ‘right time’ is? One answer is ‘when they’re ready, before they need the learning, and before it’s too late for them to learn it’. A second answer is to tailor leadership development to the individual, so each person gets the learning they need when they’re best placed to receive it. Another approach is to ensure that leadership development is a continual cycle of practice, feedback, reflection, integration and recalibration – rather than a series of biannual one-day events separated by a sea of belligerent ‘business as usual’. The three aren’t mutually exclusive.
  • Leadership is something that happens in the relationship between leaders and the world around them, not within If we want lasting behavioural change, we should work on change in the presence of the immune system – by working directly on the relationship between the leaders and that system.

In a pandemic world, the challenge is how to use coaching (via Zoom not face-to-face), webinars, chat rooms, assignments and other virtual learning to take learning where the challenge is whilst still delivering a rich and meaningful developmental experience. There is nothing new here, but too often Leadership Developers have pushed back; ‘it won’t work, it has to be face-to-face’. Well today it can’t be, and yet the leadership challenge is even greater. We have to respond now to help our leaders help our organisations and our people survive and then thrive.

On April 21st we’ll be exploring effective leadership development in disruptive times in our webinar hosted by IMD.



[1] Forbes Jan 20 2019 https://www.forbes.com/sites/chriswestfall/2019/06/20/leadership-development-why-most-programs-dont-work/

[2] W. Bock: Why Most Leadership Training is a Waste of Money and What You can Do about It. http://leadership.bestmanagementarticles.com/a-1530-why-most-leadership-training-is-a-waste-of-money-and-what-you-can-do-about-it.aspx

[3] K. Nowack (2008) Why leadership training doesn’t work and what you can do about it. http://results.envisialearning.com/why-leadership-development-training-doesn’t-work-and-what-you-can-do-about-it/

[4] The career architect planner Lombardo and Eichinger (1996) Lominger


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