The leader’s new clothes

From $7 billion to nearly $14 billion.

That’s how much the spend on leadership training by American corporations grew over the preceding 15 years, according to Kaiser and Curphy in their 2013 paper Leadership development: The failure of an industry and the opportunity for consulting psychologists.

Over that same period we witnessed the bursting of the dot-com bubble, the implosion of Enron, and of course the Global Financial Crisis. While the causes of these unfortunate events are complicated, our leaders were evidently ill-equipped to prevent them.

Despite the billions of dollars’ worth of training invested in them.

Undressed mannequins in a shop window

For a long time I felt like the child who could see the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. Then Jeffrey Pfeffer visited Sydney.

Pfeffer is the Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. He was promoting a book he had published, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, in which he states what I (and no doubt many others) had been thinking: leadership training is largely ineffective.

At a breakfast seminar I attended, the professor demonstrated how decades of development had no positive impact on metrics such as employee engagement, job satisfaction, leader tenure, or leader performance. He posited numerous reasons for this, all of them compelling.

Today I’d humbly like to add one more to the mix: I believe managers get “leadership” training when what they really need is “management” training.

They’re entreated to be best practice before they even know what to do. It’s the classic putting of the cart before the horse.

For example, the managers in an organisation might attend a workshop on providing effective feedback, leveraging myriad models and partaking in roleplays; when what they really need to know is they should be having an hour-long 1:1 conversation with each of their team members every fortnight.

Other examples include training in unconscious bias, emotional intelligence and strategic thinking; yet they don’t know how to hire new staff, process parental leave, or write a quarterly business plan. Worse still, many won’t realise they’re expected to do any of that until the horse has bolted.

I’m not suggesting leadership training is unimportant. On the contrary it’s critical. What I am saying is that it’s illogical to buy our managers diamond cufflinks when they don’t yet own a shirt.

At this juncture I think semantics are important. I propose the following:

  • Management training is what to do and how to do it.
  • Leadership training is how to do it better.

In other words, management training is the nuts & bolts. The foundation. It’s what our expectations are of you in this role, and how to execute those expectations – timelines, processes, systems, etc. It focuses on minimum performance to ensure it gets done.

In contrast, leadership training drives high performance. Now you’ve got the fundamentals under your belt, here’s how to broaden diversity when hiring new staff. Here’s how to motivate and engage your team. Here’s how to identify opportunities for innovation and growth.

$14 billion is a lot of money. Let’s invest it in a new wardrobe, starting with the underwear.

12 thoughts on “The leader’s new clothes

  1. The first management training program I attended covered planning, leading, organising and controlling (PLOC). Most of the time was spent on POC. Leadership was seen as part of a manager’s responsibility.

  2. Yes! Totally agree. They also need to spend money on the nuts and bolts training for their teams. I watch as millions are spent on the high level leadership stuff every year while the nuts and bolts stuff just isn’t done, or it’s done so poorly it might as well not be.

  3. @Geoff – That sounds like a thoughtful way to frame management training, Geoff. Indeed, L is a key role of the manager, and so is P, O and C :)

    @Anonymous – Quite right, a similar argument can be posed for all employees. The foundation of “self leadership” is doing your job properly!

  4. I thought of Jeffrey Pfeffe’s book as soon I saw the title of this post. I think I have about three of his books and I skim through these perhaps once a year. He rallies against many organisational orthodoxies.
    I do agree with your observation re: leadership vs management training.
    It may be the cynic in me and the fact that I have the good fortune to no longer work within a hierarchy, most leadership motherhood statements and talk make me cringe.

  5. Could not agree more. Most managers don’t need leadership training – they need the basics of effective managers. Basic blocking and tackling stuff – how to measure, what to do, when to do, what to say..
    Logically you can’t be a leader unless you have followers. Most people don’t have those.

  6. Let me agree (80%) and disagree (20%).

    Agree: I think Pfeffer’s work is a far more honest consideration of leadership and power than most management writing.

    Agree: “Leadership” is considered sexier than “management”. In fact “management” – and esp. middle managers – seem to be the current favorite whipping boys of certain management writers and consultants.

    Agree: The biggest gains in most places are to found in getting to a baseline level of managerial competence throughout the organisation rather than aiming for whatever flavour of “leadership” training is in the works.

    Agree: A lot of training for managers seems driven by senior executive whims refracted through the L&D team rather than the nuts and bolts of what they need to do the job.

    Disagree: “Leadership” is very simple. By definition, it involves only 2 things. 1. Going where no one else is and 2. Bringing other people with you. We seem to have gotten into the habit of reserving the term only for senior executives – which is BS. Anyone can lead. And it is not “teachable” in classroom sense (despite the deluge of frameworks claiming to do just that on the market) in the same way that you cannot teach riding a bike with a seminar series or book. It is coachable.

    It has nothing to do with management structures or high performance or status. If you want to call the other, do-it-better stuff “executive training” then fine. But lets set the L word free.

  7. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Matthew.

    Apologies if I suggested that I think leadership is simple – I don’t!

    Indeed my use of the L word in this piece was in the context of people management. I agree that anyone can lead. I suppose my argument is that, wherever we are on the ladder, we should prioritise laying the foundations.

  8. This topic is very topical for me too Ryan. I think it is useful to differentiate between horizontal (management competencies) and vertical (adaptive capacity) development. Have you seen this recent paper by Nick Petrie – https://www.nicholaspetrie.com/post/lessons-in-vertical-leadership-development

    I think there is a real opportunity to align leadership needs with strategy. As part of their strategic business cycle, leadership teams can be asked to define the aspirational culture required to deliver on the strategy or in other words, do we have the capacity to deliver?

    A fallout of this capacity is the requirement for leaders. What sort of leadership do we need? How will we build the capacity of our leaders? What interventions will develop and support leaders as part of executing our strategy?

    This approach creates a clear alignment with strategy, giving leadership a genuine purpose, focus and roadmap. Tailored interventions can then be developed and conducted as part of the leadership team’s work (It IS the work).

    I’m finding the Adaptive Cultures framework useful for supporting this evolutionary approach https://adaptivecultures.co/about/framework/

    I’m left wondering what this approach means for HR Business Partners and L&D teams, who are used to sending people off to one of the three leadership programs that gets run every year, year after year…

  9. Thank you for your excellent additions, Andrew.

    I wasn’t aware of Petrie’s whitepaper, so cheers. I see that it’s based on Torbert & Cook-Greutner’s Leadership Development Framework which a while ago prompted me to reflect on the semantics of Learning vs Development.

    Petrie’s argument in favour of using the framework to inform leadership development is sound, and your joining of the dots between management competency and the horizontal plane, and adaptive capacity (or leadership, if I may) and the vertical plane, is insightful.

    Aligning leadership needs with strategy makes perfect sense to me, as does aligning management needs with the employee lifecycle. Perhaps the Adaptive Cultures Framework unifies the two (along with everything else) by spelling out a cultural maturity curve for the organisation.

    What does it mean for HR Business Partners and L&D teams? Well I think it informs us of where we should be focusing our energies. As you suggest, it’s not about one-off events covering goodness-knows-what. It’s about supporting a professional journey of growth and purpose.

  10. Thanks Ryan, I hadn’t read your Learning vs Development post before and LOVE it and more relevant than ever! Until recently, I think the ‘D’ in L&D was largely outsourced to qualified coaches or psychs, rather than internal L&D practitioners. I suspect it was also seen as an opportunity for the few/privileged. The reality of our world and our work, means that we have to be able to tackle adaptive challenges at scale.

    I haven’t read Cook-Greuter, but have found Torbert (Seven Transformations, Action Inquiry) really useful, along with Immunity To Change (Kegan, Lahey) and of course, Heifetz (Adaptive Leadership).

    I recently read this interview with Ed Schein, which I found interesting. He talks the western model for leadership and why it needs to evolve.
    https://www.egonzehnder.com/insight/in-conversation-with-ed-schein

    I really enjoy and appreciate your blog Ryan. Cheers!

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