(And Three Ways To Fix It)
I’d like to begin by saying that this article isn’t an attack on you or your current leadership training. It’s an attack on leadership training in general, a $150 billion industry which has almost entirely failed to create the better leaders that it continually promises. Recent Gallup polls have found that two-thirds of us are disengaged at work, which corroborates nicely with previous Gallups polls that found the same thing. As leadership is the biggest driver of employee engagement – and as employee engagement is the biggest factor in determining overall productivity – it’s safe to say that our predominately disengaged workforce is a glaring indictment of our systemic failure as leaders.
Well, let me amend: we’re leading people, we’re just not doing it well. Give someone a leadership position and they’ll lead – sometimes well and sometimes badly, but the leading and managing will ultimately happen. In fact, we don’t necessarily need to train our leaders at all; we could just give them the responsibility and sit back to see what happens. But most of us want more out of our leaders than a body to fill a vacancy.
I am not the first person to say that most leadership education is failing to accomplish its goal, and I won’t be the last. But I’ve not yet seen anybody put the issue into a framework that is simple enough to both understand and remedy. Fundamentally, there are only three underlying problems with the way we teach leadership:
We Don’t Do It At All
Or at best we throw some in whenever we find time. Far too often, leadership training is considered a “nice to have,” despite the fact that improving leadership development is a top priority for almost every company ever surveyed by any consulting group ever.
We Do It Sporadically
When we do get around to developing our leaders, we do it in bits and pieces – a leadership book here, a conference there, a day-long training session once or twice a year. A Boston Consulting Group survey found this to be one of the main reasons leadership education fails to reach its potential – because leadership is a skill that requires constant attention in order to properly develop, and because one-off sessions are necessarily high-level and rarely if ever allow people to dive into the specifics of their leadership challenges. The fact that we expect children to attend math classes every day while corporate leaders undergo leadership training a few times a year is an interesting irony.
We Focus Exclusively On What We Should Be Doing
Which, on the surface, sounds like the right way to go. Unfortunately, though, all of us stopped liking lectures when we were approximately 12. Somewhere around a billion studies have revealed lectures to be a relatively poor teaching method, but we still keep at it. By endlessly stressing the behaviors we are supposed to emulate, most leadership education ends up coming across as pedantic at best and condescending at worst, thus enervating and ultimately alienating the precise people it’s designed to teach.
Congratulations! Now you know why your leadership training completely and totally sucks. Now let’s fix it.
Recognize That Leadership Is Its Own Skill
Being a good leader has exactly nothing to do with being a good engineer, or doctor, or musician, or balloon animal maker, or anything else. Leadership is exclusively a function of communication, and that communication falls into two categories – how we communicate our vision and the importance of what we do, and how we communicate to the people we lead their essential role in the execution of that vision. As long as we keep thinking that good workers will naturally figure out how to be good leaders, we will continue to struggle with the same lack of enthusiasm we’re facing now.
Focus on Leadership Daily
Nowhere in our formal education do we ever cover how to motivate others, handle difficult situations, articulate a strategy, balance competing expectations, or any of the other communication skills that sit at the core of what leadership is. And just as we got good at everything else we’re good at through time and constant practice, we need to be doing the same with leadership skills. A quality leadership education program will involve daily exercises in verbal, nonverbal, and written communication.
Showcase and Discuss Worst Practices
Effective leadership education will tell people how to do things well – but if that’s all it does, it will eventually bore and frustrate anyone who doesn’t feel like being lectured to – which is all of us. So the best education will also include some examples of how to screw everything up. Mountains of research (and plenty of personal experience) have shown us that we pay more attention to negative things than positive ones. Showcasing worst practices, therefore, will help learners remember lessons better and longer than if they only focus on how to do things well. It’s also more entertaining, which never hurt anything.
We’ve done a very poor job of helping ourselves become better leaders, but the solution is not difficult. Great leaders are made, not born, and they’re made at the same speed and in the same way that concert pianists and web designers and chocolatiers are made – slowly and steadily, through patience and constant practice, and without a lot of lectures.