Why Leadership Development Fails

I love Brene’ Brown. Her Ted Talks on vulnerability are pure personal inspiration. Her descriptions of living transparently, with total authentically with full vulnerability, is breathtaking. In her book, Dare to Lead, I get teary-eyed every time she references Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena quote. I love the sentiment in her definition of leadership when she says, “I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and who has the courage to develop that potential.” Vulnerability, she says, is the foundation of innovation, and fundamentally, she is correct. Fully developing a new idea takes the courage of failure and ridicule to see it through. These ideals are both the challenge and the opportunity for leadership development.

The Challenge of Leadership Development

First the challenge. She is speaking to an audience of one. It is I who must demonstrate vulnerability, and I am the man “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…” It is soaring rhetoric for a Friday motivational speech at the conclusion of a conference. Unfortunately, Monday morning comes. My boss needs the report by 10:00 AM. I have email, phone calls from clients that need immediate attention. Our best customer is unhappy and and we need to address our response immediately. This is going to take the place of my presentation of Ms. Brown’s talk that I was going to give at the Wednesday leadership meeting. By next week, I will barely remember the conference, let alone what Ms. Brown had to say. However, I do remember that it was good. She is a fantastic speaker.

Second, the result. While directing no criticism toward Ms. Brown her approach to leadership development is why people like Jeffery Pfeffer of Stanford University and Barbara Kellerman of Harvard’s Kennedy School are questioning the value. For example, annually we spend $billions on leadership training but there is no measurable ROI. While it might be useful for personal growth, there is no evidence it has any organizational value. Kellerman and Pfeffer both suggest it is not developing better leaders, but it might also be developing leaders who are worse for the investment.

The Solution – A System of Leadership

From my research, the solution is to focus on developing a workforce that is bold, courageous, and fearless. Yes, fearless. However, the only way to eradicate fear in the workplace is to require every leader and manager to perform their duties in ways that will value the voice of the workplace. Imagine your organization’s impact if every leader knew how to mentor new and innovative ideas from their team through a designed process? I do not mean a few leaders can mentor their staff. I mean, EVERY leader mentors their staff as part of a designed system. Sound like a fairytale? It is not. It is how those organizations that consistently perform at an elite level approach leadership. They make it about a system rather than the inspiration of the one.

Timothy Clark, Ph. D writes in his book, 4-Stages of Psychological Safety, “innovation is almost always a collaborative process and almost never a lightbulb moment of lone genius.” Creating an organizational culture of psychological safety takes more than inspirational speeches to an audience of individuals. No matter how eloquently delivered. It takes a systemic approach to leadership that eradicates fear.

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