Why Leadership Training Typically Fails

Learning about leadership from a maestro

Learning about leadership from a maestro

Let’s face it, you can’t really teach leadership in a classroom. Yet loads of partners go off to business schools such as Harvard, INSEAD, LBS where they review case studies and learn about techniques such as Porter’s 5 Forces and De Bono’s coloured hats. They come back and their team think they behave a bit strangely for a few days but after a while they’re back to normal again and everybody is relieved. Money well spent? I’m not sure.

How else do firms try to teach leadership? Many firms run in-house programmes where budding leaders have to work together in teams to build a contraption or work out exercises to find the best route to a factory. They’ll probably be asked to do a diagnostic test which shows they’re a ‘purple’ or a ‘team player’ or an ENTP. Many do find these programmes fun and interesting but, on their own, they rarely achieve significant and sustainable changes.

Rather than look in more details at how leadership programmes can be made more effective (through introducing elements such as proper sponsorship, coaching, mentoring, developing accountability for specific projects, introducing appropriate measurement and reward processes etc), I’d like to offer an alternative approach for consideration – experiential leadership programmes.

I believe effective leadership is developed more through deeper interventions that change people’s mental models of themselves and others. One way of doing this is through experiential programmes. Perhaps surprisingly, such programmes involve little recognizable teaching. There are no group exercises or case studies. You are simply put into a different environment where there are transferable lessons. You sit and watch and listen and then talk about your experience afterwards, typically as a group, with a facilitator.

Here are a few examples of these sort of leadership programmes:

  1. Support call centres – a group of directors sit in a support call centre (similar to The Samaritans). They learn more powerfully than any training programme they’d been on how hard it is to listen really well and hard it is for them not to give advice. Exercises can then be designed to help teach these skills.
  2. Drama workshops – another group watch drama students in action and are encouraged to join in to express the state of disempowerment. The participants learn about how the junior members of the office teams feel. A discussion is held to consider better ways of empowering staff.
  3. Turnaround school – one group visits a turnaround school and talks to the head, the staff and the pupils. They learn about the importance of having an inspiring vision and the importance of boundaries and zero tolerance to misdemeanors. Discussions look at ways of adopting these approaches in an appropriate way in the office.
  4. Choir/orchestra – a group of leadership coaches attend a rehearsal of a world-leading choir to see how the Musical Director develops an enhanced performance from the choir members. The importance of clearly communicating through words and body language what is required and an effective coaching style are clearly appreciated. The facilitator helps participants model this leadership approach back in the office.

The benefits of experiential leadership programmes are as follows:

  • The importance of various leadership attributes can be appreciated more clearly by choosing the right kind of environments
  • Leadership attributes are felt somatically (ie more deeply) rather than just cognitively (in the head), helping participants model the leadership attributes in the work place
  • Transferable lessons are taken on board from all these experiences

I believe we all need to consider alternatives to classroom experiences to help develop leadership talent.

For more information about learning from a world-leading choir about leadership, please contact me.

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