The perils of leadership training


Organizations spend billions of dollars on leadership training every year. They send managers and manager-wannabes to a wide range of leadership training activities formal MBA programs, leadership seminars, weekend retreats, and even outward bound adventures. They appoint mentors. They establish “fast tracks� for high potential individuals in order for them to gain a variety of the “right kinds of experience.� We propose that much of this effort to train leaders is probably a waste of money. And we base our position on looking at two fundamental assumptions that underlie leadership training.

The first assumption is that we know what leadership is. Experts can’t agree if it’s a trait, a characteristic, a behavior, a role, a style, or ability. Further, they can’t even agree on whether leaders really make a difference in organizational outcomes. For instance, some experts have persuasively argued that leadership is merely an attribution made to explain organizational successes and failures, which themselves occur by chance. Leaders are the people who get credit for successes and take the blame for failures, but they may actually have influence over organizational outcomes.

The second basic assumption is that we can train people to lead. The evidence here is not very encouraging. We do seem to be able to teach individuals about leadership. Unfortunately findings indicate we aren’t so good at teaching to lead. There are several possible explanations. To the degree that personality is a critical element in ‘leadership effectiveness’ some people may not have been born with the right personality traits. A second explanation is that there is no evidence that individuals can substantially alter their basic leadership style. A third possibility is that even if certain theories could actually guide individuals in leadership situations and even if individuals could alter their style, the complexity of those make it nearly impossible for any normal human being to assimilate all the variables and be capable of enacting the right behaviors in every situation.

It cannot be a peril,
Leadership training exists, and is a multibillion-dollar industry, because it works. Decision makers are, for the most part, rational. Would a company like General Electric spend literally tens-of-millions of dollars each year on leadership training if it didn’t expect a handsome return? We don’t think so! And the ability to lead successfully is why a company like Forest Laboratories willingly paid its CEO, more than $148 million in 2001. Under his leadership, the company has experienced spectacular growth including shareholder gains of 40%in 2001 alone.

While there are certainly disagreements over the exact definition of leadership, most academics and business people agree that leadership is an influential process whereby an individual, by his or her actions, facilitates the movement of a group of people toward the achievement of a common goal.

Do leaders affect organizational outcomes? Of course they do. Successful leader anticipate change, vigorously exploit opportunities, motivates their followers to higher levels of productivity, correct poor performance, and lead the organization toward its objectives. A review of the leadership literature, in fact, led two academics to conclude that the research shows “a consistent effect for leadership explaining 20 to 45% of the variance on relevant organizational outcomes.

The effectiveness of leadership programs vary. They will because the programs themselves are so diverse. Moreover, people learn in different ways. Because some leadership programs are better than others and because some people participate in programs that are poorly matched to their needs and learning style, we should expect leadership-training effectiveness to have a spotty record. So decision makers need to be careful in choosing leadership training experiences for their managers. But they shouldn’t conclude that all leadership training is a waste of money.

In conclusion we say that leadership training is a more positive feature provided it is imparted to managers who have come up in the organization to a certain level by their natural ability and the leadership training will definitely hone their skills to achieve much better performance and capable of taking higher responsibilities.

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