Let’s phase out leadership development

I readily admit that it could be self-damaging to suggest we do something as silly as phasing out leadership development.  After all, this is what I do for a living.  I create leadership learning programs, I coach leaders on their personal development, and I teach leadership to anyone who wants to listen.  I read and study it…and then read some more…  Some say (ok, just me) that I ‘geek out’ on leadership.  Why not?  It is a pretty cool topic.  Don’t you think?

But, what would happen if we stopped teaching leadership development in corporations?  Would there be no leaders?  Probably not.  Would people stop learning about leadership?  Certainly not.  In fact, good leaders learn about it on their own…arguably.   And the best leaders never stop learning.  They are always asking “How am I doing?  How can I be better?”

But, this is a minority.  I know this.  I know so many leaders who are in leadership roles, who really aren’t leaders.  I’ll go out on a limb and say that they are actually managers.  There is a difference.  And that’s a topic for another day.

Corporations spend millions of dollars creating future leaders and ensuring current leaders know what they are doing.  They say it is critical to the success of an organization (considered a “competitive advantage” by many).  But why?  Seriously?   If leadership is so important, why aren’t we simply hiring them by selecting from a giant pool of ready leaders, rather than teaching it ourselves?  I think I know why.  Because they aren’t out there.  For some reason, the concept and deployment of leadership eludes so many.  But why?

How could this be possible?  I could not begin to articulate how much available literature there is on the subject.  Now, more than ever, it is readily available, with free content everywhere I turn.  And it is not like this is a new concept.  We have had leaders since Adam and Eve.  Eve…now there was a leader…”Here Adam, eat this apple…”  I didn’t say leaders couldn’t be misguided…

The simple fact is that we don’t teach it early enough…and maybe another problem is that many organizations aren’t set up to reinforce good leadership behavior through their culture and practices…but that’s yet another train of thought for another day.  For now I want to zero in on the idea that maybe we should be teaching leadership much earlier in life.

Growing up I heard about leadership.  I even volunteered for, and was elected into, formal leadership roles.  And I think I did a good job for the most part.  I think I had some good instincts to guide me.  This is probably a similar experience for most people.  But, to be painfully honest, I didn’t know what the $&$% I was doing most of the time.  It wasn’t until I took an elective (i.e. not required) course in my graduate program that I started to understand some of the art and science behind leadership, and then decided to continue studying and practicing on my own.  And now I get to teach this mysterious concept to adults in an organizational setting.

But, why so late?  Why didn’t someone sit me down at a much younger age and say “Alan, let me teach you about leadership because this is what we need to be successful in life.”  Why aren’t we teaching it as part of required learning for all, along side math, science and reading, starting as early as elementary school?  Is this happening somewhere in the world, and I am just the unlucky one who missed it?

Let’s phase leadership development out of the corporation…and into the schools.  And then, maybe my job would be about ensuring my organization is set up to support our leaders in all their awesome leader-ness, and to help them with their ongoing learning…not teach it to them for the first time.

5 thoughts on “Let’s phase out leadership development

  1. Love this provocative post. Absolutely, we need to re-frame what we mean by leadership. You can’t teach people to become like Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs, Margaret Thatcher, et al. You can teach people to act like leaders – when it’s necessary. But, I agree that corporate leadership development programs are barking up the wrong tree. I also agree that teaching it in school would be more useful idea for society, not just corporations. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we elected politicians because they knew how to manage and lead, not because they could approve the most negative ad campaign?

    1. Hi Alan,

      Glad you liked this. I just facilitated another course on leadership last week, and it struck me again that we might be too late for some of these people. How many opportunities were missed because they didn’t explore this subject sooner? I’m excited to say that I’ll be embarking on a new journey of teaching leadership to college students next semester, as an adjunct instructor. So, I’ll do my part to get these folks ready before they go to work, but I’d love to see us get them even sooner. Right you are, that this would be great for society as a whole. Maybe one day.


  2. Hi Alan, You are right. That’s one of the reason I wrote LOVING Like a Leader to show emerging leaders that empathy is good business. I wonder if the 77 short stories called LEADERSHIP MINTS in the book could help in making your case for required learning? Your insightful letter in my book — available on Amazon digitally and in paperback– is good start to helping business managers become more loving leaders and more fully grow their people and the bottom line. What do you think?

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