Confessions of a leadership-training agnostic

Many of those delivering leadership training have an almost religious fervor in their conviction for it. These ardent fans can be staunch if they’ve grown up in organizational cultures that didn’t allow or encourage any push back or critical thinking about the premises on which the leadership training is based. It’s considered nearly blasphemy to voice a concern that most leadership training is not effective Folks think anyone who’d doubt that leadership can be effectively taught must also deny that the world is round. They can’t believe people like this — leadership Luddites — are in the business world.

I am one of the few who have publicly doubted if leadership training is effective, as I have not been convinced that leadership is teachable via traditional methods. That is not to say it can’t be learned. Let me explain my take on the difference.

When I say “teachable” I’m referring to the practice of having a pre-determined set of leadership skills that is covered in a leadership training course, often conducted by someone who’s never held a leadership position. My trouble with this approach is the assumptions that

  1. “good” leadership skills can be generically defined, 
  2. good leaders all share similar skills, and 
  3.  the same skills are needed, no matter what the situation.

“Learnable” has a different connotation to me. It says that someone decides to improve specific skills. They are self-motivated, self-reflective, and seek ideas and feedback on their ability to create desired outcomes. Thus, they choose to learn new options for behaviors based on their best learning style. Some learn best in a group setting, others through video examples, books, or with a mentor/coach. It’s naive to assume that everyone needs the same skills, and that everyone learns best through a set curriculum in a group setting.

More fundamental to the process of learning to be a leader is the definition of both “leader” and “good” leader.

First, some believe a leader is someone who has a clear vision and can communicate that vision. I always test definitions against my personal experience. I’ve encountered people who describe themselves as leaders and communicate their vision. But they don’t have the ability to get others excited about working with them on that vision. It might be the vision isn’t exciting, or the “leader” doesn’t have sufficient people skills.

My definition of a leader is someone others are drawn to follow. A leader, to me, is defined by followers. Sure there are people who are assigned to lead a group, but the team *has* to follow them if they want to be employed. There’s nothing compelling to get others to want to work with him/her. Typically, these required followers give just enough to maintain their job, but they aren’t excited or inspired to go beyond average.

Others are given a title that says leader — director, vice president — but they are a one-person band, not needing others on their team other than occasional contact outside their area of responsibility to get the job done. So is one a leader if one’s “team” is comprised of those in other departments?

A start-up needs a different kind of leader than a long-standing business. A small business needs a leader with different skills than a large government agency. Leaders in Silicon Valley most likely need different behaviors than those in Cambodia.

I’m told common elements of leadership training include emotional intelligence or other updated takes on basic people skills. Yet, we could find lots of examples of leaders who others were drawn to follow, despite being bullies, autocrats or just jerks. So EQ isn’t a requirement, either.

Does that mean that one can’t learn to be a more effective leader? No. One can always strive to enhance one’s skills.

What have I seen work? Someone is motivated to be more effective and takes a hard look at his/her current behavior and those needed to lead their group. This means you have to be savvy about what specific individuals need to be excited to follow, as well as what the organization and situation need. The guidance of a mentor and/or coach can be invaluable to help someone become aware of their behaviors and examine what needs to shift to improve what isn’t working as well as it could.

There are just too many variables to design a one-size-fits-all leadership training curriculum. Thus, my declaration of being a leadership-training agnostic. I haven’t seen enough indisputable evidence to show me that one can learn how to be a leader via group training.

If you are absolutely convinced that leadership training is effective in increasing leadership skills, what makes you so adamant? If not, what gives you doubt?