The Problem With Leadership Development

The Problem With Leadership Development


By Gordon Curphy, Robert Hogan, and Robert B.

During the past two decades, learning executives have persuaded U.S. corporations to double their annual spending on various forms of leadership development to $14 billion. Yet over that same period, public confidence in leadership has dropped considerably. According to a 2012 poll by The Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University, 70 percent of Americans believe there is a leadership crisis that will lead to a national decline unless we find better leaders.

Many leaders, including some in the learning profession, recognize the problem. A 2011 survey by consultancy Development Dimensions International Inc. of 14,320 executives reported that 38 percent of line leaders and 25 percent of HR leaders gave their organizations high ratings for leadership and only 32 percent and 18 percent, respectively, thought their organizations had the necessary bench strength to meet future business needs.

That leadership development is broken seems to be an open secret. In a 2013 survey by research firm Brandon Hall Group of 329 organizations, 75 percent of respondents described their leadership development programs as ineffective. What accounts for this disconnect between money spent on leadership development and leadership performance?

A Way Out of Darkness

Six problems undermine leadership learning and development initiatives, and these problems flow from deeply held convictions reinforced by so-called best practices.

The evaluation problem. It is a dirty little secret that leadership development programs are rarely evaluated in a meaningful way. They are typically evaluated byasking participants how much they liked or benefited from it, or by using metrics such as how many directors received 360 feedback, how many managers watched an e-learning module and so on. But the real question is whether programs produce positive changes in behavior and financial results.

Thousands of leadership development programs are delivered in the U.S. every year, but a 2009 review article by Bruce Avolio and colleagues published in The Leadership Quarterly could only locate the results of 200 programs that were formally evaluated. Two-thirds of these programs were found to have positive outcomes. Because these programs likely were better designed and delivered than those not evaluated, the overall failure rate for the typical leadership program is probably higher than 1 in 3.

Learning leaders normally use evaluations to justify return on investment, but evaluations also can be used to improve programs. Without formal evaluation, many programs will use questionable methods, and no industry is more susceptible to fads than leadership development.

The definition problem. Evaluation requires specifying desired outcomes, and this requires defining leadership correctly. Unfortunately, leadership is most often defined by a position — Marissa Mayer is the leader of Yahoo Inc., or the senior vice president of marketing is the leader of that group. This confuses status in organizations with leadership, and many senior managers are better at promoting their careers than they are at leading.

Competency models also can be used to define leadership. But competency models are idiosyncratic lists of skills and abilities composed by asking senior managers what is needed to lead in particular jobs. Because few senior managers are good leaders, asking them about effective leadership is like asking a doctor for investment advice. He or she probably has an opinion, but it may not be a good one.

Teams are the building blocks of organizations. The essence of leadership is persuading individuals to work together to achieve a common goal. Thus, many believe leadership should be defined as the ability to build and guide teams that outperform the competition. Leadership development programs should be constructed from this perspective and should be evaluated in terms of whether they help leaders build high-performing teams.

The people problem. Many of the people who attend leadership development programs are drawn to high-status and high-paying leadership positions, but they have little talent for leading a team. These people fall into three broad types: savvy politicians who can play the game; technically competent individual contributors; and ambitious people who are also arrogant, defensive, incapable of self-reflection, and not open to learning and growing. As a result, many people who attend leadership development programs lack the motivation and interest to do the hard work and learn how to lead a high-performing team.

Organizations need to rethink who they send to leadership development programs. They should focus on identifying individuals with people skills who are also team-oriented, results-driven and curious learners. It would also help to screen out self-promoters, satisfied technical experts and those unable to change.

The content problem. Little of what is taught in leadership programs concerns the actual tasks of leadership. Courses are often based on competency models which, in addition to being ad hoc, rarely concern how to build teams that get results. A review of the most popular, commercially available competency models shows they almost never include competencies specifically about getting results through teams. The same is true for the homegrown competency models used in most organizations.

Nonetheless, people in positions of authority often struggle to staff teams, launch virtual teams, fix dysfunctional teams, and align competing interests and egos. Focusing leadership development efforts on these team concerns is essential if programs are to have a demonstrable impact on results.

The pedagogy problem. Most leadership programs are taught in inappropriate ways. They tend to be events with little follow-up support or accountability for transferring learning back to the job. Further, research summarized by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” shows that developing expertise — in writing fiction, figure skating or leading — requires 10,000 hours of practice, far more than a one-day seminar, weeklong training program or two-year MBA. Worse, leadership programs are often taught by HR staff, talent managers and consultants — individual contributors with no real leadership experience — which makes it difficult to translate theory into practice.

There are four ways to improve leadership training. First, reinforce learned lessons back on the job. For example, reporting back to the participants’ bosses, having a clearly defined action plan and periodically reviewing progress will add support and accountability. Second, provide learning environments that allow experimentation and practicing new skills with real-team feedback. Third, use teachers who have track records for building high-performing teams. Fourth, involve intact teams together in the learning and development process.

The rationale problem. Leadership development programs are often launched for questionable reasons: A CEO decides a leadership book is the key to organizational salvation. Someone thinks the organization needs a leadership development program to teach “best practices.” Or a senior manager wants a coach as a perk after reaching a certain level. Although these programs cost millions of dollars, they rarely improve organizational results or leadership bench strength.

To get the best return on investment, start leadership programs for at least one of three reasons: to help leaders learn how to develop the strategies and tactics needed to beat the competition; to help leaders learn how to build and maintain a team; or to improve team dynamics and results.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The shortfall in leadership talent will continue unless learning leaders change their approach to leadership development. CLOs are uniquely positioned to drive this change because they are responsible for talent development, they understand the mechanics of adult learning and they control leadership development budgets. The following recommendations are not expensive but do require learning leaders to think differently about leader development.

1. Clearly define leadership. Organizations need a clear definition of leadership to organize their development efforts. If leadership is defined as the ability to build teams that outperform the competition, this definition has specific implications for how to hire, develop and promote leadership talent.

2. Build better competency models. Organizations should build competency models either by observing what distinguishes leaders with track records for building high-performing teams or by interviewing these leaders. Including those who are not proven team builders muddies the waters.

3. Rethink who attends leadership programs.Well-validated assessment tools can be used to identify those with the right motivation, interest and talent for leadership. These tools also can be used to screen out those who are not likely to benefit from the training.

4. Offer programs on teams. Most leadership programs nibble around the edges of team development. They often concern goal setting, communication, coaching, delegation and performance management as applied to direct reports with no concern for how the concepts work with teams.

5. Teach intact teams. Because teams are the building blocks of organizations, leadership development programs should target intact teams rather than isolated individual leaders. This is particularly true for teams critical to driving the business strategy.

6. Resist the magnetic pull of fads.Far too many leadership development programs are based on the latest fad. Programs should be aligned with an organization’s definition of leadership, business strategy and the knowledge, behaviors and skills needed to guide teams to execute that strategy. Everything else is just noise.

7. Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. Although the effect of some leadership development initiatives is more easily studied than others, all programs should be evaluated in terms of meaningful outcomes. The outcomes should focus on the skills, behaviors and competencies individual leaders need to build a high-performing team as well as team performance.

Gordon Curphy is president of Curphy Consulting. He can be reached at

Robert Hogan is president of Hogan Assessment Systems. He can be reached at


Robert Kaiser is a partner with the executive development consultancy, Kaplan DeVries Inc. His latest book, The Perils of Accentuating the Positive, discusses the hidden dangers in strengths-based development and how to avoid them. He can be reached at

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