Training leaders to lead—time for a re-think?

How effective is the present investment in growing new leaders? US companies alone spend almost $14 billion annually on various forms of leadership development.

In the UK only 7 percent of senior managers polled by a UK business school thought their companies developed global leaders effectively. Trust in leaders in leaders generally is on the cusp of serious decline: CEOs are not credible in 23 countries, and around half have declined in all 28 countries studied by the Edelman Trust barometer.

Also, around one third of all US companies admit they’ve have failed to exploit their international business opportunities fully because they lack enough leaders with the right capabilities. So it’s entirely sensible to question whether how we train leaders to lead is working.

TRUST Barometer

Some would argue leadership training has little impact, since leaders are essentially born not  made. What counts is giving them plenty of practice and new experiences.

Against this view that leaders are born, is the claim they can be systematically developed. This approach relies on creating high level competencies. In turn, companies demand a good return on this investment (ROI)–even when it cannot be precisely measured and is seldom made explicit. In fact companies often  

McKinsey 2014

How to lead and what it means to be a leader therefore remains an ongoing concern. What do we do when leaders are so diminished from what they were, even in the recent past? Or how do potential leaders learn to lead when resources such as power, authority, and influence are scarcer than before? And, finally, how best to learn to lead when the context itself is fraught with complexity and constraint? 

Thomas FriedmanAs Thomas Friedman points out (Thank you for being late), we’re now facing an era of unprecedented accelerations—technology, globalisation and environmental. This is transforming—well…everything, and certainly what we expect of our leaders.



 why we need a change

The workplace, politics, geopolitics, ethics and community are all being rapidly re-shaped around us. Leadership must therefore change too, including how we think about and organise leadership development. 


Author Barbara Kellerman
Author Barbara Kellerman

Much of the problem with leadership training, in my view, is that we are trying to develop something in leaders long after the train has already left the station. It’s not that it can’t be done. It is just much harder. Good leadership development begins much earlier in life.”
Barbara Kellerman in The End of Leadership

We therefore need leaders who can thrive in a world, where change itself is continually speeding up. This is not simply about adaptability. It’s about a different form of leadership—one that gives more emphasis to the social side of making things happen.

Social skills, previously consigned to the backwaters of leadership development, can best be summed up as “responsible leadership.” They include: Co-operation; empathy; flexibility; judgement; trust; engagement, relationships and ethics.

“Responsible leadership” is the acceptable face of “ethical leadership”, which so many business people find hard to swallow.

Whatever it’s called, as Friedman explains,  there’s “a mismatch” between the change in the pace of change and our ability to develop learning systems, training systems, management systems to cope with these requirements.

Engagement now more central

One of these social skills now receiving much attention is employee engagement. A clear link between individual and company performance means all leaders need to grasp what creates engagement and what prevents it. Yet low levels of engagement continue to be recorded across most major companies and many nations:

Engagement by country

Clearly something’s not right.


Paul Zak quote

In Australia for example,  Gallup found 73% of  employees felt disengaged and this figure is replicated elsewhere.

It is surely a cause for concern when three out of four of employees don’t feel involved with a company’s future? Apart from the waste of human potential, the under performance of companies with such levels should worry all stakeholders.

So is there something that every company’s leadership development program should contain without fail? What should every leadership development program now include?

A new perspective

The answer is to adopt a fresh perspective on what creates a responsible leader. This consists of three strands:

  • A more sustained focus on the longer term
  • Greater emphasis on ethical, or responsible  leadership
  • More opportunities for experiential learning

The first of these three demands a leadership less obsessed with making money at the expense of the long term. There are growing demands for such a shift—see panel.

Short termism in the cross hairs

Second, we need leaders who understand and embrace social relationships, particularly ethical leadership. We could call this “responsible leadership”.

Some developers fear they don’t know enough about ethics. Others think they already know a lot. Most readily grasp the issues associated with being a responsible or ethical leader— concern with corporate culture, the importance of values, integrity, honesty, transparency, diversity and speaking up about wrong doing.

speak from the heartEven when developers fear they cannot readily speak from the heart about these issues, this can soon be remedied. It mainly comes down to yet another case of training the trainers.

Training the trainers is not about passing them a script to spout in a workshop. It’s about giving them practice and confidence to talk with passion about what they already know.

Take values. Few competent leadership developers would have big problems helping leaders get to grips with the importance of values in forming and maintaining corporate cultures.

The third perspective shift we need is more experiential learning. Even after basic training, adults retain only about 10 per cent of what they hear in classroom lectures, versus nearly two thirds when they learn by doing.

No matter how talented, burgeoning leaders, often struggle to transfer even the most powerful off site experience into changed behaviour at work. Effective experiential learning mixes on the job learning, often combined with project-based activities linked to real business issues, plus other more imaginative methods including simulations and drawing on ideas from the performing arts.

When it comes to ethical leadership for example, creating experiential learning is particularly challenging. Some companies have tackled this by using vivid scenarios, regularly presented to teams for exploration and discussion. These may be anything from videos, through to scripts which people act out to reveal hidden dilemmas. Forum theatre, another device for promoting fresh thinking and awareness, has also been successfully adapted to this area.

rehearseIt all demands making available rehearsal time. The latter provides a safe place where potential learners try out new behaviours associated with responsible leadership.

In such a space they get to grips with why the longer term is so important, what creates empathy, how to talk about ethics with authenticity, how to explain why values are critical to ethical performance and so on.

compliance juggernaut2Compared to the juggernaut of investment pursuing compliance, the amount devoted to training executives to be responsible or ethical leaders is more like a small bucket and spade.


This too must change.


Ethical Leadership training on the map

The three changes we therefore need to see in leadership training are a new perspective consisting of:

  • A stronger focus on the longer term, at the expense of the short-term
  • Leadership programs devoting time and space to what it means to be a responsible or ethical leader
  • More experiential learning that provides a visceral impact on behaviour

Underpinning these should  be a new willingness to find a new language leaders and their developers feel works for them. In particular “ethical leadership” has yet to gain much formal currency within companies. Hopefully this will alter in the new age of “accelerations.”

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EY Poland Report: Short-termism in business: causes, mechanisms and consequences, 2014
T. Friedman, Thank  you for Being Late, Allen Lane, 2016
Added values The importance of ethical leadership, ILM
The American Prosperity Project,: A Nonpartisan Framework for Long-Term Investment, Aspen Institute 2016
The 100 Best Performing CEOs in the World, HBR Jan 2017
A. Semuels, How to Stop Short-Term Thinking at America’s Companies, The Atlantic, Dec 30 2016
What’s Wrong with Leadership Training Today?, Leadership Now, 15th June 2012
P. Gurdjian et al, Why leadership-development programs fail, McKinsey Quarterly January 2014
Overcoming Short-termism: A Call for a More Responsible Approach to Investment and Business Management, Aspen Institute September, 2009
J. Grahama et al, The Economic Implications of Corporate Financial Reporting, Duke University, Durham,2005
R. Martin, Yes, Short-Termism Really Is a Problem, HBR, October 2015


Acknowledgement: Thanks to Michael Maynard for his helpful suggestions for this post.


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