Is It The End Of Leadership Development As We Know It?

To leaders of and inside organisations, and to the human resources fraternity I ask the question: Is it the end of leadership development as we know it?

It is time for the entire leadership development industry to be scrutinized more rigorously and perhaps even challenged and revolutionised, because you, the leaders, and by default your organisations are not getting your money’s worth. Most leaders inside organisations know this or sense it, but for some reason don’t challenge it – heaven forbid we dare not invest in leadership development!

During difficult times the natural reaction of human beings, especially those with a leadership mentality, is to re-look, re-visit, revise or scrutinise what has been placed under their stewardship. The Leadership development space or industry is no different. Let’s intensify this conversation!

Some state a strong case for the benefits of training in general: “Organizations that make large investments in people typically have lower employee turnover, which is associated with higher customer satisfaction, which in turn is a driver of profitability.” And then in management training: “A second driver is manager proficiency – good managers determine if people stay or go, and this is also influenced by training and development.” Bassi & McMurrer (2007)

Bassi put her theories to the test when she and a fellow partner launched an investment firm that buys stocks in companies that invest heavily in employee training. It has returned 24 percent a year over the past two years, topping the S&P by four percentage points. So it seems if an organisation can get it right there will be positive spin-offs.

But why is it that during difficult times for an organization, one of the first activities that fall under the axe of cost cutting is training or development and very often leadership development? Yet it is during difficult times that leadership should become even more important.

There could be many answers to this question, one being that the difficult times are precisely when all the training investment should pay off.  Another reason is that the cost-cutting is a genuine and temporary measure needed during a difficult period. But perhaps the difficult question to face up to is this: Could it be that those that deliver leadership development programmes live in their own bubble, unaware of the essence and fact that ‘subconsciously’ most leadership development programmes don’t impress, are perceived to be irrelevant, a nice to have, or at best not relevant enough?

For a moment, set aside all your beliefs regarding this and look at it from a very objective, logical and universal point of view.

Inside your organisation there is an expectation that leaders should move their people and relevant area of responsibility forward successfully.

Read carefully what I have just written here.

Leaders are supposed to create successful movement, and they are for the most part measured accordingly. The organisation places someone at the head of a department, store, mine, division, or business unit so that the person can move it to another level, to a better place – happier customers, more sales, higher and safer production, greater profitability, behavioural alignment to organizational values, and so on. The operative word here is “move.”

In conversation with Zunaid Bulbulia, the chief executive of MTN South Africa he said it this way: “There are two areas of movement I want to create in this organization.  There’s a need for us to become the number one service company in South Africa, not just in our industry.  The second is I want us to be able to sustainably grow faster than our competitors along all the key areas of our business, whether that’s in revenue, in profit, in market-share, in brand awareness, in social responsibility, across all the key metrics that make a business successful”.

Now, to assist the leader with this task of creating more effective movement, the organization often invests heavily by sending the leader on programmes and development courses. Why? At its core it is so that he or she can come back into the working environment with more confidence and skills to create that much needed movement, especially in difficult times.

In reality what happens? The leader goes on the programme or programmes, at great cost, learns much, is bombarded by many great leadership principles and models, and then returns to the day-to-day job. How much of what was taught actually finds its way back into the organization? How much better is the leader at creating that desired movement of people and situations? How much better is the leader at creating the desired movement of people and situations? How much improvement of movement actually occurs?

Let’s be frank – we all know the answers to these questions, and there is research that substantiates how little difference these programmes really make:

 “10% to 20% of our training efforts transfer to the job.” (Brinkerhoff & Gill, Baldwin & Ford, & others). I believe as time passes this percentage drops even further.

“Training accounts for 10% of the potential for changing performance on the job.” (Rummler & Brache)

Wilhelm Crous, MD of Knowledge Resources shares this: “We recently conducted the Knowledge Resources Leadership Survey. What I found really concerning is that only 27% of the respondents indicated their content leadership programmes are effective. In addition, 76% indicated they can’t evaluate the ROI of the leadership development process. That is despite the fact that 15% of respondents spend over R3-million per annum on leadership development.”

So, as the ultimate custodian for leadership development, what should you do about this? Be courageous and ask the right questions, based on what leaders are supposed to do, universally speaking, which is:

1.  Create movement

This first function constitutes the essence and real responsibility of a leader, which is that he needs to make things happen. This is a given. No organisation can exist without successful movement taking place.

2.  Create movement in a certain way

The second function relates to the culture and values of the organization – do we want leaders to create movement at all costs, whether through force, manipulation, fear or any other means? Or do we want them to create movement while caring, collaborating, listening and empowering people? So the decision internally is within what culture, environment do we want movement to occur, and what behaviour do we want demonstrated as the leader creates the actual movement?

You have a huge problem though. We all know that it is extremely difficult to bend an old tree, to get an older individual to change deep-seated beliefs of how a leader should behave towards people while creating movement, especially under pressure. It is my experience that there is an outside chance for an older individual to change behaviour, if – and it is a big if – he/she sees the need to and has a great desire to do so. If not then no programme or intervention will change the person.

So, when you challenge and scrutinize current and future offerings of so called leadership development, whether at a reputable business school or some training organization, ask this:

“Do we want this training, development to impact point one or two above?

If one, then ask: “How will this course or programme practically improve our leader’s ability to create better movement of his/her people and responsible area?

Most providers will give you some very good theoretical answers to this question. Just remember that in most cases answers may be based on the assumption that the leader will incorporate a high percentage of learning into the work environment. But we know that this mostly does not happen at all.

So another question that needs an honest answer would be: “How much of what the leader will learn will filter back into the working environment?”

It is important that the organisation needs a way to measure the leaders actual performance (movement) on the job before the programme and then also after, in order to establish whether he/she has improved movement capability.

Should the training be to improve point two above – how the leader creates movement – remember, as mentioned above, that it is very difficult, or sometimes impossible, to bend an old tree. It may be more productive to invest in improving your employment approach to ensure that the right people get on board from the start.

However a leader can, at great effort, develop and even change his behaviour, but if he does not implement simple universal movement dynamics to create that non-negotiable and needed movement, then all you end up with is a person that behaves well and understands leadership, but failed.

During a conversation with Edward Kieswetter the chief executive of Alexander Forbes, he said that he had never come across a performing team (where successful movement happens) with low morale.  I guess all the training in the world won’t motivate if it is not followed by successful movement.

The foundation for any leadership development journey has to be “improvement of movement” capability!  If it does not achieve this it is a “nice to have” and frankly quite possibly irrelevant and a money waster, which most organisations can ill afford in current economic conditions.

This article appeared in the:

Business Report




Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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