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Why most Leadership Development fails – and what we need to do about it

The exams season has just finished – and here in the UK it has proved particularly controversial.  The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, says that he would like to see a return to an emphasis on exams.  Those against the exams system complain that they create too much stress and put excessive focus on a candidate’s performance on the day.

More generally, the pandemic has prompted a debate about what education is for.  Perhaps we put too much emphasis on teaching subjects and not enough on helping young people to learn how to solve problems.

This question has implications for leadership development too.  If this emphasis on subjects rather than problem solving really does reverse the logic and fail to help young people in the real world, then it’s not just educationalists that are making a mistake – many corporations are doing the same.

Leadership courses – a surprising discovery

One of our clients, the HR director at a global corporation, decided to analyse the data from the corporation’s flagship leadership development programme.  What he discovered was very revealing. Past alumni on the programme, actually performed less well than the leadership population as a whole when it came to both progression and retention.

When he investigated further, he discovered that the cause of this problem was a disconnect between what was being taught on the programme and the real-world situations that course participants would find themselves facing.

These findings fit with the experience of other clients of ours.  Talking to them about what they teach in their leadership programmes we unpacked evidence that suggests that we only really learn when that learning connects immediately and directly, to what truly matters to us, a concept known as our ‘landscape of concerns.’

When we recognise that learning will be helpful to us, it creates an emotional response or, as psychologists put it, an ‘affective imprint.’ It’s this process that allows the memory to encode the learning and then reproduce it when it’s needed.

Making learning relevant to our own goals

The evidence suggests that the more that something relates directly to our high order goals and priorities, the greater its affective imprint. This means that for people to learn, we need to create these emotional connections, or affective imprints – people need to know how this learning is going to help them in a practical sense.

Given that we seem to learn most effectively about issues concerned with what we care about, our role as educators should be to ensure that the subjects areas on leadership courses make this fundamental connection.  We should not be asking ‘What do our leaders need to learn?’ Instead, the question should be: ‘What are our leaders trying to achieve, and therefore what do they most care about?’

Too much leadership development still focuses on teaching models. Having taught the model, the course then seeks to demonstrate its potential for practical application in the workplace.

A better way to develop the leaders of tomorrow

A more effective way to train leaders would be to start with the scenario – a true-to-life problem that they typically have to solve.  They would explore it and deconstruct what works. From this they would draw out the learning and connect explicitly with actions that they should take back into the workplace.  Only then (and this is addressed mainly to the theoreticians among the group) would they show how it is pulled together in the form of a conceptual model, backed up by supporting data. To put it simply, you start with what matters most to your course participants, and then work backwards to get to the theory.

However, our client the HR director found something else of interest.  His analysis revealed that the development programme which saw its alumni progress most rapidly through their career had one key characteristic.  Here a cadre of a couple of hundred managers were selected, for a ‘Mission Impossible’.  In this case it involved transferring all of the organisation’s data to a secure cloud, in a very limited time.

In order to meet this stretching goal, the participants were fast tracked through a special development programme, aimed at giving them the necessary skills.

The fact that this group progressed within the organisation faster and more successfully than the leadership population as a whole is further evidence that leadership development works best when hard wired directly and immediately into a real business issue.

To request a copy of Threshold’s White Paper, Leadership Development – Why it fails and what we can do about it, contact