Why Leadership Training Often Fails and How to Change It

The importance of leadership in any organization cannot be understated.  Poorly lead companies often produce poor results. Similarly, a great leader can turn any organization around helping to make it thrive.  With so many businesses and agencies investing in leadership training seminars and leadership development programs, why is that we still have poorly performing organizations?  Is there an inherent problem with the training itself or is something else going on?

When considering leadership training programs for yourself or your organization, it’s important to really think about what you are trying to get out of the program.

Based on my personal experience over the last few decades, I offer the following reasons why traditional leadership training is failing. In addition, I offer my recommendations on how to improve it for the better.

Person in nice shirt and suspenders with crossed arms

Lack of Emphasis on Leadership Development

How can an organization develop leaders if they don’t ever emphasize the importance of leadership? Few leaders are ever born however most are made. Leadership is a skill that must be learned just like anything else. If an organization desires for their staff to become excellent leaders then they must emphasize the importance of leadership by creating a culture that values leadership principles.  

I’ve worked for several companies over the years and one such company had a lackluster attitude about leadership.  The supervisors didn’t care much for developing their people and the executive team never left their office to interact with the employees.  Staff turnover was very high. In fact, we had new employees coming and going on a weekly basis.  The supervisors were overworked and stressed and the employees couldn’t get any guidance from upper management. In addition to this, morale was low and on-the-job injuries occurred almost daily.

Eventually, the management team brought in consultants to help make a change, however, it was a pitiful attempt to put a band-aid on the problem. Even though the consultants made a valiant attempt to effectuate change, they never received buy-in from more than half of the employees and the change effort failed.

Needless to say, I didn’t work at this company for very long. The executive team seemed too focused on profits and didn’t care to instill leadership values in their people let alone themselves. There definitely wasn’t any accountability there and no one took ownership of the company’s challenges. If the company’s executive team had just made a few small changes in how they ran the company (as well as changing their mindset), I am willing to bet that these problems would eventually have been solved.

Leadership Training is Often a Secondary Priority

In any case, many organizations who do place an importance on leadership often fail to sufficiently train their employees. Leadership is not something that can be trained once a quarter or even once a month if it is expected to flourish and develop properly. Just like learning a new language or studying mathematics in school, leadership must be developed on a constant and consistent basis. Eventually, with consistency and practice, people can grow, improve themselves, and their leadership skills will become a permanent habit.

Organizations must decide to make leadership development just as important as any other on-the-job training program that they have. Leadership skills and should be taught from the first day that a new employee is hired. Better yet, leadership development should be just part of the daily culture.

At my current employer, the culture surrounding leadership development is changing.  Our core group of managers, supervisors, and executives now participate in leadership training courses, exercises, and seminars on at least a bi-weekly basis.  In addition, people are strongly encouraged to join a book club where leadership books are read and discussed as a group. All employees from the top down to the bottom are being included in the initiative to change our organization for the better. Furthermore, the executive team is working to develop the leaders who will take over when the current team retires or changes careers.

Person Writing on a whiteboard during a lecture

The Leadership Training is All Talk and No Walk

If you ever attended a leadership training course then you have most likely experienced the lecture style presentations that consultants like to give businesses and their workers. In this scenario, the teacher talks and the students sit and listen. The discussion is most often one-sided and the focus tends to be on what you should be doing as a leader. 

The truth of the matter is that most people don’t like being told what to do, especially in a lecture-style manner. Lectures may work okay for children and college students, however, this approach may not necessarily be appropriate for the people attending leadership training seminars.  Some people may do well with lectures, however, the majority of people need to be more engaged than that. This is especially the case if the knowledge being taught is to be fully absorbed and eventually applied. In addition, most people desire to be treated as equals rather than to be talked down to by a leadership guru.  

Leadership training that utilizes cases studies, real-life examples, and hands-on exercises tend to produce better results than a standard lecture format would.  In my experience, classes and seminars that use plenty of real-life examples, especially ones that highlight what you shouldn’t be doing as a leader, have the most impact. People tend to remember stories much better than a list of bullet points or special formula for success. In addition, by focusing on what not to do, the stories tend to be even easier to remember.

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