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Why Leadership Development programs really fail

Much has been written about why Leadership Development (LD) initiatives fail in organizations. Most has been attributed to a change in executive leadership or shifting strategic direction and priorities. With changes in priorities, there is a potential that the stated LD goals no longer align with the organizations. A lack of developmental interest among employees or leadership is another reason. Many leaders remain hesitant to put forth development efforts based on a concern that developed employees will take their new skills elsewhere. LD efforts also take time. Many executives leaders want to have a one and done within a few short weeks. Without a team member or processes to reinforce the learning, it’s easy for old patterns to seep back in. Of course, the adage “culture eats strategy” remains relevant today. If the executive leaders do not participate in the LD experience, it’s unlikely that any new LD strategy will be effective. It’s the equivalent of putting someone in a round boat with one oar. Culture eats strategy.

A lack of effective evaluation strategies and/or an inability to measure ROI has been widely touted as the most significant reason why LD efforts fail. While there is no doubt that each of these has contributed to its failure, evaluation tools often fall short of any ability to measure learning. Surprisingly many organizations are still using a level one or “smiley face” scale with questions that have nothing to do with actual knowledge acquisition. Questions such as “was the food was good,” “was the room was adequate,” or “the “facilitator was knowledgeable,” are all good to know, but are not indicators of learning. Therefore, it’s not surprising that measurement falls short. And when a few bad financial quarters shows up on the books LD is usually the first to go, as no adequate means of ROI or knowledge transfer have demonstrated its value.

I’d like to propose a different reason why LD efforts fail: human psychology. Here are a few behavioral elements that I’ve experienced over time, which generally outline why LD ceases to produce desired results and ultimately fails.

Self-limiting behaviors or beliefs

One thing that is true of all great LD programs is the ability to look into the mirror and come to terms with our own potentially bad or inappropriate behavior. This is challenging for anyone and consider the additional self-limiting beliefs that reinforce our equally limiting behavior. Much of our behavior is learned over time, informally through years of observation and modeling. With so many organizations continuing to produce poor leadership, it’s not surprising then that many leaders fall into the trap of equally bad leadership through observation and reinforcement.

  • Our own learning agility. Motivator or attractor responses vs. threat responses: are we using LD efforts to motivate others or has been used as a perceived threat? We often send poorly performing leaders to LD initiatives as its some form of remediation. No one learns well in fear, frustration, or apathy. Apathy is definitely an LD buzzkill.

  • Emotional Intelligence – do we understand ourselves as best we can? Constantly seeking to broaden the "known to self" window? Our own threat reactions, our deeply held beliefs, how our upbringing has influenced our decision-making. Additionally, the mirror-neurons in our brain reinforce behaviors that we’ve been exposed to overtime. This is particularly true when these behaviors are reinforced through rewards and recognition.

  • Cognitive dissonance is the painful awareness that a deeply held belief may not be all that it seems. This is one of the easiest things to brush aside. Coming to terms with new truth or perspective is challenging to the most seasoned.

  • Fixed mindset – the idea that I am good and right and no longer need to learn. I’ve referred to it often as the “I have arrived syndrome” or the inability to consider LD as a journey. With new information constantly emerging, development must be ongoing with an openness or growth mindset to a different way.

  • Lack of vulnerability. The idea of vulnerability in the workplace is still relatively new. It is, however, a crucial part of leadership. In order to have a professional relationship with others, we must be vulnerable by means of sharing personal experiences, being open to feedback, and allowing others to take the helm at times. That’s new information to me can be some of the most difficult words spoken in a culture where uncertainty is seen as a career ender.

  • The ladder of inference. Finding ways to reinforce deeply held beliefs. We all tell ourselves a story, it’s part of our own self-preservation. The more evidence we seek to support our belief, however, further limits a growth mindset and allows us to remain in that space of cognitive dissonance.

  • Long-term existence in an outdated model, ahh – back to the beginning of our list: informal learning through years spent in a flawed or dysfunctional way of doing things. The organization isn’t fully bought in and continues to reward the wrong behavior. It’s difficult to believe in new ways of leading when the old ways are still reinforced. Yup, culture eats strategy.

Another part of the problem is that we still consider LD as a training rather than a learning event. Just as I cannot train you to become an artist, I cannot train you to become a leader. I can teach you how to hold a brush, mix paints, prepare a canvass, but much of the art itself is based purely on our own natural ability and practice to perfect it. Leadership is much of the same, it is learned. I can train you how to use the tools of leadership, but leadership is learned overtime through a series of trials and tribulations, being open to what you did, what worked, what did not, and trying again. Learning occurs overtime, not in a seat.

It’s not uncommon to blame training for organizational failures. Certainly, bad instructional design does exist, but this is mostly due to the lack of understanding about how important good instructional design is, and it’s not putting a bunch of information on a power point deck. We frequently look at the symptoms rather than the actual problem. The change effort didn’t go well, so it must be the fault of poor training. This team is functioning well, they must need a lesson in good communication. There is no way to measure the ROI of learning so why have it? When in reality, the larger failure is an inability to see the organization as a living system, dependent on whole parts working together, and our own unwillingness to accept that we may be a part of the larger problem.

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