Can Leadership Development Really Work?


Executives continually rank leadership development as a top priority. Unfortunately, there is no doubt that many leadership development programs out there simply fail in their promise of actually developing leaders. So what’s really going on?

The sad truth is that too many programs only focus on leadership theory alone and usually only in an organizational tone. Additionally, leadership development programs often regurgitate stats and figures and then expect the student to memorize it all as if it were a “one size fits all” endeavor. I believe this is fundamentally flawed because one size does NOT fit all, and stats and figures are not exactly “inspiring” regarding leadership development.

Leadership style is a great example of this. You can’t simply change someone’s leadership style from one to another because that assumes they adhere to a single leadership style. The truth is that leaders are usually a blend of numerous leadership styles resulting from years of exposure to the real world. You have to work with that specific blend, and since no two students are identical, you cannot approach their development as though they are. Furthermore, one will usually not just change their style because a paragraph in a handout expresses the benefits or reasons for doing so. And let’s be honest with ourselves; we probably wouldn’t want our leaders to change so easily anyway.

True, studies have demonstrated that some programs can succeed in changing attitudes about how one should lead. However, follow-ups on such studies also reveal that regression into pre-training views is common. I believe this is because the most important factor is usually not considered when the program is designed or deployed, and memorization isn’t enough.

Let’s examine for a moment what we know to be true. To begin with, a leader performing well in one situation may not perform so well in another. We also know that leaders are not perfect and that they are people too. This means they may fall victim to the same limitations and influences as the rest of us. We also know that memory isn’t all it’s cracked up to be at times, so memorization alone is not something to be relied upon. And finally, we know that the ability to apply what one has learned can be greatly hindered if memorization alone is the goal of a program. As a result, a leader will simply go back to what he or she is familiar with.

Since these positions are generally easy to recognize as true, there is an assumption by some that ALL leadership development programs are not going to lead to lasting results. I believe this assumption is also flawed because of a simple yet very important factor that too many have a hard time wrapping their heads around, let alone using as a tool of change. This factor changes the game entirely, though, and one that a FEW organizations base their programs on.

The “H-Factor”

The factor that too many programs fail to address is the “H-Factor” or the Human Factor. The human factor is a simple one. I equate it to chaos theory. It means that we are all flawed, awesome at times, terrible at others, different, not different, individual, collaborative, strong, weak, smart, dumb, secure, and vulnerable. Each of us is any one of these things in any number of different ways at any number of different times in our lives. This means that even if you are a solid leader overall, you’re still not perfect, and you’re still going to have some “leadership gaps” and will need to rely on others as a result.

So can Leadership Development Really Work?

Absolutely… if it’s approached right. A solid leadership development program must be based on the individual, not the organization. The truth is that for great leaders, there is no difference between life and leadership; it’s just something they are. A solid leadership development program will address the individual specifically with this in mind. This is why great programs will work for people from all walks of life. When students are taught to embrace who they are as a person and rethink the construct of what a leader is “supposed to be,” they will see success. A solid leadership development program will teach students to recognize and embrace the “H-Factor” to help them become better leaders.

Think of it like foam. You can manipulate foam in a million ways, but it will eventually return to its original shape. Similarly, so many people often regress to old ways of thinking after a leadership development program because that program sought to manipulate the person into something they weren’t designed to be.

However, when you apply heat to foam, you can change its shape entirely. A solid leadership development program will ignite the heat from within and encourage students to change their mold into whatever they want it to be. This equates to lasting results.

A solid leadership development program will dig deep to discover the root of our decision-making processes, the things that keep us guarded, and the programming that has influenced us over time. When a student discovers this reality for themselves, it’s they who wish to change. With such a program, students will change fundamentally from within because it’s THEIR decision to do so. As a result, how students approach everything in their lives begins to change accordingly, and the results are not only long-lasting but foundational and systemic.

A solid leadership development program will teach students to recognize their leadership gaps and embrace those gaps for what they are. It will teach them how to use those gaps as strengths. Such a program shouldn’t be interested in changing the person into something they are not or simply don’t want to be. That won’t work. Instead, the program should hone the leader’s leadership skills they already possess and help them achieve greater confidence in their abilities. This makes them more effective leaders because they realize that it is okay to have leadership gaps and that they can foster a stronger organization or home by empowering others to fill those leadership gaps.

A solid leadership development program should begin with personal leadership and self-awareness. It should live by the idea that we cannot address a challenge unless we are willing to recognize it and face it for what it is. The program should examine and establish purpose, integrity, vision, focus, and effective processes. It should teach the arts of personal acceptance, celebration, and emotional intelligence. A quality program should teach that learning is a never-ending process if we seek to remain competitive and competent. And such a program should always be presented with heavy doses of self-reflection, questions, and simple conversation customized to the student… because one size simply does NOT fit all.

Such programs exist, but you will need to challenge or rethink your views on leadership development to find them. Leadership development is not all theory, stats, and memorization; those are for the practitioner to know. For the student, it’s more about the art and skill of leadership application. These must be honed by someone who truly understands leadership and how it applies. Choose carefully.

Learn more! Check out my article titled, “30 Great Leadership Books for Leadership Pros.