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Why Leadership Development Programs Don't Work (And What Does) Leadership development should be

Companies in the United States spend more than $14 billion each year on leadership development. The market need is obviously there.

But is any of this working? In some cases, yes absolutely, but more often than not, I see a lot of experts missing the mark.

Many people are named leaders and are placed in leadership positions. You can look on almost any corporate website and see titles of people identified as "the leaders of the company." That doesn't mean any of these people are leading or even know what it means to lead. "Lead" and "leading" are verbs. They are action words.

This is what we, as individuals and the companies we are part of, are all trying to develop--a capacity to lead so we can do a better job leading.

Leading is the act of:

  • Setting direction

  • Allocating resources

  • Enrolling others and inspiring action

  • Being accountable for results

So in order to develop our capacity to "lead" we need to put ourselves in situations that develop our capacity to set direction, allocate resources, enroll others and inspire action, and hold ourselves accountable for results. Period.

I have found that most leadership development programs don't work for two reasons.

1. Participants can't apply what they've learned.

Leadership offsites are great. They give leaders the time to clear their minds, live in the moment, and strengthen relationships with other leaders in the company.

The problem is these offsite training events are often led by academics who use methodologies and theories that aren't rooted in the day-to-day challenges that leaders are facing.

Leaders come away from these events feeling energized and ready to try out their newly acquired skills, but then realize they aren't sure how to apply what they've learned. The leader will quickly return to old habits and ways of thinking because it's what they know.

The capacity to lead is not developed in an academic executive program taught by people who haven't led anything.

The capacity to lead is not developed in a classroom setting while discussing case studies. Instead, the capacity to lead is developed on the deck, in the work, in real-time and should be focused on achieving a business outcome.

When a leader is out of the classroom and in the field, they learn from their mistakes. They learn what type of communication needs to happen in different circumstances.

They learn how to develop a sixth sense of what needs to be accomplished for their customers and how to assemble the best teams to achieve these necessary outcomes. Leadership is best gained by doing, not through theorizing.

2. The goal of the program is wrong.

The capacity to lead is not developed in any situation where the advertised result is leadership development.

In my more than 30 years as an entrepreneur and business leader, I have found that when you chase leadership, you will lose leadership. The same is true of team work, culture, and morale. Chase any of them, and you will lose them.

After all, you aren't seeking high performance leaders for the sake of having effective leaders. You want this type of leadership because you know that strong leadership is essential to the long-term health and success of your business.

The capacity to lead, effectively work in teams, and establish and sustain a peak performance culture is a secondary benefit of setting your sights on achieving a specific business outcome in a specific period of time.

What is the most effective way to develop leaders?

Leadership development should be approached like a fitness routine. If you truly want to get into shape, you must work at it. A few training sessions per year isn't going to lead to lasting results.

Leaders need to commit to ongoing efforts to develop their capacity to lead.

If a leadership development program is going to be effective, it will require a proper assessment of the organization and its leaders to uncover dysfunctional behaviors.

The training should be based on what is actually happening in an organization, not on a standard framework or workbook.

Perfectly timed insights will make more sense to the leader, and they can immediately and permanently put them into practice.

Leadership development should also focus on business outcomes.

Think of business outcomes you need to achieve, such as hitting your annual revenue goal. What's getting in your way of achieving the goal? Are there any dysfunctional behaviors that are putting that goal in jeopardy?

Effective leadership development programs will surface these types of issues and equip leaders to deal with any and all dysfunctional behaviors that are putting that outcome at risk.

And here is the really good news. A leadership development program focused on delivering real-time guidance on overcoming actual challenges in your company will help you achieve your desired business outcomes.

Even more, you will have teased out dysfunctional behaviors, and created peak performance leadership, teamwork, and culture along the way. That is the enduring value and will make all the difference.

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