Business Leadership Today

Why Most Leadership Development Programs Are Not Working


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

In the bustling arena of business, leadership development programs are frequently hailed as the secret weapon for nurturing talent and securing an organization’s future success. 

Employees who have undergone leadership training demonstrate a 28% boost in critical leadership abilities, a 25% increase in learning strategies, and a 20% improvement in performance.

Global organizations spend more than $60 billion every year on leadership development programs. Yet, despite the substantial resources poured into these initiatives, they often fall short of their lofty promises.

This raises the question: why are most leadership development programs not working?

Most leadership development programs are not working because of misalignment with the organization’s strategic objectives, a gap in translating theory into practical application, an overemphasis on individual growth at the expense of team dynamics, and a dearth of sustained support for participants.

In this article, we will peel back the layers of these prevalent challenges plaguing leadership development programs and explore how organizations can recalibrate their approach to ensure they are fostering enriching leadership experiences that not only facilitate individual growth but also propel the organization toward its long-term goals.

Misalignment with Organizational Goals

A significant pitfall in many leadership development programs is the misalignment with the organization’s strategic goals. These programs often concentrate on cultivating generic leadership skills, neglecting the specific needs and challenges unique to the organization. 

Consequently, this approach yields leaders who, while competent in a broad sense, lack the specialized skills and knowledge necessary to steer the organization toward its objectives.

To avoid this misalignment, organizations should adopt the following strategies:

Tailored Program Design

Organizations should design their leadership development programs based on their unique strategic goals. This involves identifying the specific skills and knowledge that leaders need to possess to drive the organization forward. For instance, a tech company might prioritize skills like innovation and technical expertise, while a non-profit might focus on fundraising and community engagement.

Regular Program Review

Organizations should regularly review and update their leadership development programs to ensure they remain aligned with the organization’s evolving strategic goals. This could involve annual or biannual reviews of the program’s content and structure.

Stakeholder Involvement

Involving key stakeholders in the design and review of the leadership development program can help ensure it remains aligned with the organization’s goals. This could include senior leaders, HR professionals, and even potential program participants.

By adopting these strategies, organizations can ensure their leadership development programs are tailored to their specific needs and challenges, thereby cultivating leaders who are not only competent but also equipped with the specialized skills and knowledge needed to drive the organization forward.

Lack of Practical Application

Leadership development programs often lean heavily on theoretical models and classroom learning. While these methods can offer valuable insights, they frequently fall short when it comes to practical application in the workplace. 

Marshall Goldsmith once said, “To help others develop, start with yourself! When the boss acts like a little god and tells everyone else they need to improve, that behavior can be copied at every level of management. Every level then points out how the level below it needs to change. The end result: No one gets much better.”

Goldsmith’s words serve as a powerful reminder that leadership development is not just about acquiring new skills and knowledge in a vacuum. It’s about applying these learnings in real-world scenarios, practicing them in our daily work, and continuously refining them based on experience. 

Without the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in a real-world context, participants struggle to fully integrate and utilize their new skills and knowledge. To bridge this gap between theory and practice, organizations can adopt the following strategies:

Experiential Learning

Incorporate experiential learning into the program. This could involve simulations, role-playing exercises, or real-world projects that allow participants to apply their new skills and knowledge in a controlled environment.

Mentoring and Coaching

Implement a mentoring or coaching system where experienced leaders within the organization guide participants in applying their learning in the workplace. This provides participants with personalized feedback and support, helping them to integrate their learning into their daily work practices.

Action Learning Projects

Introduce action learning projects as part of the program. These are real, live projects that participants work on, allowing them to apply their learning directly to their work. This not only helps to reinforce the learning but also delivers tangible benefits to the organization.

By incorporating these strategies, organizations can ensure that their leadership development programs not only teach new skills and knowledge but also provide opportunities for participants to apply this learning in a practical context. 

This will result in leaders who are not only knowledgeable but also capable of putting their learning into action to drive the organization forward.

Overemphasis on Individual Development

A common mistake in many leadership development programs is the overemphasis on individual development, often sidelining the importance of team and organizational development. 

This approach can produce leaders who excel individually but falter when it comes to functioning effectively within a team or organizational context. Leadership, after all, is not just about individual competence, but also about the ability to inspire, motivate, and lead others.

To circumvent this issue, organizations can adopt the following strategies:

Foster a Team-Oriented Culture

Organizations should foster a team-oriented culture within their leadership development programs. This could involve incorporating team-building exercises and group projects into the program, emphasizing the importance of collaboration and collective success.

Develop Organizational Leadership Competencies

In addition to individual competencies, organizations should also focus on developing organizational leadership competencies. These are the skills and behaviors that leaders need to drive organizational success, such as strategic thinking, change management, and organizational awareness.

Implement Cross-Functional Training

Implementing cross-functional training can help leaders understand the interdependencies within the organization and appreciate the value of collaboration. This involves exposing leaders to different functions within the organization, which helps them understand how these functions contribute to the overall success of the organization.

By adopting these strategies, organizations can ensure their leadership development programs produce leaders who are not only competent on an individual level but also capable of inspiring, motivating, and leading others toward collective success and who are equipped to navigate the complexities of the modern business landscape.

Lack of Ongoing Support and Development

Leadership development is not a one-off event but a continuous journey. However, many programs fall short in providing ongoing support and development opportunities for participants. 

Dedication from senior leadership is essential for any leadership development program to succeed, but 30% of organizations have difficulty creating effective leadership development programs due to a lack of involvement from senior leaders. 

Without this sustained backing, leaders may find it challenging to retain and build upon the skills and knowledge they have acquired.

To circumvent this issue, organizations can adopt the following strategies:

Continuous Learning Opportunities

Organizations should provide continuous learning opportunities for leaders. This could involve offering advanced courses, workshops, or seminars that allow leaders to continually update and refine their skills and knowledge.

Peer Learning Groups

Establishing peer learning groups can provide leaders with a platform to share experiences, discuss challenges, and learn from each other. These groups can serve as a valuable source of ongoing support and learning for leaders.

Performance Feedback and Coaching

Regular performance feedback and coaching can help leaders understand their strengths and areas for improvement. This feedback, when coupled with coaching, can guide leaders in their ongoing development journey.

Leadership Development Communities

Creating communities around leadership development can provide leaders with ongoing support. These communities can offer resources, discussions, and networking opportunities that support leaders’ continuous growth.

By adopting these strategies, organizations can ensure that their leadership development programs offer sustained support and development opportunities. This will help leaders maintain and build upon the skills and knowledge they have gained, ultimately leading to more effective leadership and organizational success.

Making Leadership Development Programs Work

To improve the effectiveness of leadership development programs, organizations need to ensure that these programs are aligned with their strategic goals, provide opportunities for practical application, balance individual and team development, and offer ongoing support for participants. 

By addressing these issues, organizations can develop leaders who are not only competent in their roles but also capable of driving the organization toward its strategic objectives.

Remember, leadership development is not just about developing leaders, but about developing leaders who can effectively lead the organization towards its goals. As Simon Sinek would say, “Leadership is not about being in charge. It’s about taking care of those in your charge.” Let’s keep this in mind as we strive to make our leadership development programs more effective.

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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