Rethinking Leadership Training


leadershipLeadership training is a big industry. It is estimated that businesses spent approximately $60 billion on such training in 2011. This raises two questions.

1. Why is so much money spent on leadership training?
2. Is the money well spent?

Leadership training is more about showing respect to certain employees than it is about improving their leadership performance. Being sent to a leadership training course seems to be more of a perk than a response to a perceived need. As to whether the money is well spent, the answer is, “Who knows?” The literature regarding the evaluation of leadership training is sparse, and that is no accident. 

In the absence of empirical data, the issue of leadership trainability can be analyzed logically. Leadership is typically defined in terms of the people in charge. This is the place holder theory of leadership. Because, in most organizations, people are promoted into leadership positions primarily based on politics and only sometimes based on demonstrated leadership, the lessons learned from a study of leadership concern how to climb a hierarchy, not how to run an organization. Moreover, defining leadership in terms of place holder theories is the reason there is so much variability in leadership training curricula. 

Drawing on the study of human origins, Van Vugt, Hogan, and Kaiser propose that leadership is a resource for a group, not a source of privilege for incumbents; in this view, leadership concerns building and maintaining a team that can outperform the competition. Leadership should be defined and evaluated in terms of the performance of the followers; in business this performance is usually specified in terms of profitability. A person can rapidly climb the hierarchy of an organization while ruining the teams he/she leads—and still be called a leader—but a person who leads a team to victory is, in fact, a leader. 

Leadership is a skilled performance. Leadership performance involves building a team by creating team member engagement. A person must behave so as to be perceived by the team members as having:

  • Integrity
  • Good judgment
  • Competence in the activity in which the team is engaged
  • An attractive vision for the future of the team

How do potential leaders persuade their teams that they have integrity, good judgment, competence, and an attractive vision? They do this by putting on a consistent and credible performance that displays probity and astute decision making, demonstrates competence, and explains the vision. However, team members will watch closely for signs that potential leaders lack these characteristics and every lie, bad decision, operational oopsie, and sign of self-serving behavior will undermine their claim to legitimate leadership and alienate the team.

A major factor in the development of any talent concerns coachability – it is the one thing that all professional athletes and good leaders have in common. Coachability can be conceptualized in terms of two components: (1) a desire to improve one’s performance; and (2) being responsive to critical feedback.

Leadership training should follow from one’s theory of leadership. The place holder theory of leadership suggests that we should train people to lie and steal ideas, to bully and humiliate subordinates, or to plunder and bankrupt organizations. In contrast, the team builder theory of leadership suggests we should train people to act with integrity, exercise good judgment, become experts in the business, and be able to persuade the team that their goals are worthy. This analysis also suggests that training money is best spent on people who have talent for leadership and are coachable.