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Why I Said Stop Building Leadership Courses

I put up a post on LinkedIn last week that had quite a few readers clutching their pearls. It said, “No one. I repeat: NO ONE needs to build another leadership course”. Some took objection to the uppercase letters, others thought I was dismissing the skill entirely. Either way, I clearly touched a nerve to those with leadership training near and dear to their hearts. So, here’s an extended version of my opinion.

Google search “Leadership Training”. There are over 3,400,000,000 results. If only 10% of those hits are valid, there is still a ton of content, nay a shit ton, out there. We need to digest what already exists and find out what works, and, what does not. Leadership is a very difficult and complex topic, few do it well…even fewer teach it well. So, people build more courses to fix this perceived gap. It is a never-ending and very expensive loop. Which leads to my next point:

Psst…a lot of courses are ineffective. Like a LOT. Some estimates place only 10% of learning is delivering results. Having sat through dozens of leadership training sessions by different vendors, I would agree. But do not listen to my own anecdotal and humble opinion. The smart folks at Forbes and Harvard Business School are doing their own deep dive into the topic, which makes for compelling reading.

Now before you start sending me hate mail about why your content is the exception, the content is not necessarily the problem, although it certainly can be. I am glad to see trust falls have gone out of fashion – do not touch me ever, thank-you-very-much. The real issue, according to HBS is, “many HR professionals find it uncomfortable or impossible to confront senior leaders and their senior teams with the truth. They find it hard to tell them about how their leadership, organization design and policies and practices are the root cause of failures in strategy execution”. Applause to that truth bomb.

When a client says to me they want a leadership programme, if you dig deeper, it is usually code for one of the following:

  • Oops. We hired jerks and no one wants to work for them
  • We promoted strong individual contributors into leadership roles, and they are sinking
  • We do not have a succession plan (BTW – this is an HR, not an L&D problem)
  • Our competitors have leadership academies, so we want one

Let’s break it down a bit. Leadership training is not going to fix toxic culture. The best designed learning experience, complete with coaching, paced reinforcement, and heck, throw in an app, will do nothing. Fire your assholes, even if they are bringing in top revenue. They are costing you more in reputation and attrition.

Not everyone wants to be a leader. On my original post a few suggested I was personally lacking leadership qualities. Well, you may be right (albeit rude). I am the “I” in “team”. I do better as an individual contributor and carve my career towards my strengths. Only twice have I truly enjoyed leading a team (I am looking at you, Toronto Titans!). So, can the ladder upwards not include people management? One CTO I worked with refused to have direct reports because he knew he was not a good people leader. He was smart. For some, leading is a difficult distraction from what they are really excellent at.

Regarding the last point, of course everyone has some form of leadership training. However, make yours count. Two of my final suggestions are:

Go to the experts. Tasking your L&D department to build a Leadership Course is like asking your accountant to be your dentist. Do not have your own leaders be SMEs, because they are not. Work with people who know the skill well and have demonstrated success in this area. No, not a bunch of happy quotes, but actual tangible impact. If you cannot afford experts, at least curate from smart sources rather than wasting more money internally developing.

Challenge the C-Suite to define what they want leadership to be. There is not one style and some models out there are doing more harm than good. Kevin Miller MCIPD had a great point when he said we need, “a lot more high-quality focus on human-centred leadership skills, development of EQ, empathy, resilience, trust building, vulnerability, outsight, listening and practical coaching”. Some leadership styles I have been urged to adopt were just gross (see point above about jerks). We can do a lot more in this space

To be honest, I could have chosen from any number of topics for my post. No one should be building more courses on project management, coaching, communication, etc. The market is saturated with these too and is there really anything new to say? Skim from the best. I only selected leadership because in the past week, I have gotten no less than 23 emails advertising masterclasses, apps, webinars, and more, on the topic. It pains me to see companies, and my clients, get sold on solutions which do not address the real problem, and likely will not be effective. At the other end, there is a person trying to navigate their career and stay employed. Let’s be smarter.