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 program, leadership seminars, weekend retreats, and even outward bound adventures. They appoint mentors. They establish ‘fast tracks’ for high potential individuals 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 by looking at two very basic assumptions that underlie leadership training.
The first assumption is that we know leadership is. We don’t. Experts can’t agree if it’s a trait, a characteristics a behavior, a role, a style, or an ability. They further 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 little 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 people 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. In fact, there is evidence that leadership is, at least in part, inherited. 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 theories 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.
Leadership training exists, and is a multi-billion 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 of 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, Howard Solomon, more than $92 million in 2004. Under Solomon’s leadership the company has experienced spectacular growth including shareholders gains of 54.20 percent over the past 5 years alone.
Although there is certainly disagreement over the exact definition of leadership, most academics and business people agree that leadership is an influence 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 leaders anticipate change, vigorously exploit opportunities, motivate their followers to higher levels of productivity, correct poor performances 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 percent of the variance on relevant organizational outcomes.
What about the effectiveness of leadership programs? They vary. But more and more evidence is accumulating from the best management journals, showing that we can train people to be better leaders. Many of these studies have used rigorous experimental designs and objective outcomes. Thus, it simply isn’t credible to argue that we can’t teach people to lead.