Dec 06

The Hype of Leadership Development

Leadership development is over-rated*.

*Not to be confused with unimportant. Leadership is very important. It just happens to be over-rated.

For most organizations, a vast amount of time, energy and money goes into developing “leadership”.

We send people to expensive and intensive trainings, expecting that they’ll return to the organization miraculously transformed into uber-leaders; agents of change and inspiring coaches.

Having been blessed with many opportunities to both develop our own leadership qualities, and help others do the same, we’ve noticed some things that lead to the logical conclusion that leadership development is currently over-hyped, and generally speaking, ineffective.

Leadership is not an individual sport. So why do we think we can pluck an individual out of their context, send them on a retreat somewhere for a week, and have them slide back into the team seamlessly?

Ultimately, what ends up happening is that the individual who was lucky enough to spend some quality time introspecting and learning about “leadership” returns to a context that demands one of two things;

  1. A return to the status-quo of whatever team norms exist.

  2. Single-handedly trying to evolve their team into something more functional.

Both of those options seem kind of terrible. If leaders end up not being able to utilize their new skill sets due to team or organizational inertia, then the training was (at best) useless, and at worst you’ll have invested significantly in someone who starts to realize that they’re banging their head against the wall, or that their teams .

And if these developing leaders are forced into the position of trying to solo-engineer their teams into more functional units, organizations are running the same risk of “head against the wall fatigue”.

We believe that the answer to these issues lies in the following five principles of effective team development (originally published on LinkedIn).

1. They’re not solo endeavours. The vast majority of professional work takes place in teams. The best workshops are done in teams, and not fake, “let’s sit at the same table and pretend we’re a team working on a theoretical scenario that for some reason involves spaghetti and marshmallow’s” kinds of teams. Your team. In your context. Working on your challenges.

2. They’re not one-off events. Changing our practice is hard, and requires consistent feedback and an iterative process. One shot wonders are very rarely such. The best experiences include an action and execution period where the learning is consolidated and implemented.

3. There are accountability mechanisms built into the process. When we know that we’re going to be held responsible for implementing the learning in a meaningful way, we’re considerably more likely to actually follow through. And these accountability mechanisms don’t have to be fancy or formal. Peer coaching, mastermind groups, even an email to a colleague can all provide the necessary boost to take the learning and roll it into practice.

4. They’re focused. Less is more.

5. The fifth, and possibly most important, principle in designing optimal learning experiences is the requirement that they be experiential in nature. The best and most potent workshops involve participants as active members of the experience. They invite people into creating a meaningful relationship with each other and the facilitator as well as creating space for reflection and meaning-making with the content.

It’s not that leadership development is unimportant. Far from it.

We’ve just gotten a little carried away with it, and sacrificed a lot of team development in the process. So the next time a “leadership development” workshop pops onto your radar, take a few moments and ensure that it meets the five principles of effective team development.

And, of course, we’d love to chat about customizing something for you and your team.


About The Author

Jeff is an experienced leader in the nonprofit, education and community sectors. His vision is to help people (and organizations) change for the better. From leading multi-disciplinary professionals to facilitating change management, keynote addresses to small group facilitation, Jeff has a knack for engaging teams in the conversations that matter.