9 Reasons Leadership Development Fails

May 18, 2015 | Fabio Malagisi | HCI
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Leadership development programs have grown in popularity over the years. It seems that all companies crave leaders and many are turning to formal leadership development programs as a means to develop talent. Proceed with caution however, as this is an easy idea to come up with but difficult, potentially expensive and definitely time consuming to execute. When it works, it can be a great success, however often these efforts turn into fancy websites vs true development mechanisms. Below are my top reasons why leadership development programs fail.

Narrow focus
Leaders need to be able to thrive across multiple environments and your program must foster this versatility. It is often tempting to say that your business doesn’t need this level of adaptability because maybe you have a single business unit or are in a mature industry, however, in today’s dynamic and ever changing world, change is a constant and you will need leaders that can lead change and thrive in any environment.

Low expectations and support levels
A leadership development program must be made up of top tier talent as well as be treated with top tier expectations. You must demand significantly more from the program members in exchange for higher levels of support, resources and compensation. Invest fully in the program and require superior return on that investment. It is ok to treat the program differently than the rest of the organization, as long as the results justify it. Focus on return.

Being one dimensional
A leader should be balanced across technical skillsets, behavioral intelligence and business acumen. Your leadership development program should ensure development of all three of these areas of focus. Narrowly focusing on one area will yield one dimensional leaders, which won’t cut it. Leaders need balance and must work on all aspects of themselves in order to lead organizations to their full potential. Don’t settle for less or you will surely be left with less.

Training vs Developing
There is no leadership formula. You can’t necessarily learn leadership like you do algebra. You
instead develop leadership through core concept learning and applying multiple experiences similar to how you would develop your general character throughout your life. In order to get the most out of your program you need to embrace the process and actively coach your members to find their own leadership voice. This customized engagement makes all the difference as there is no one size fits all leadership style.

Focused on the theoretical
A leadership program will run the risk of creating theorists vs leaders, if not structured to drive real business impact and problem solving. To avoid this, you will need to trust unproven talent to be empowered to play critical business roles. This is often viewed as risky, but it is necessary if you want to have a successful development program. You need real world experience to create real world leaders.


Afraid to rock the boat
Leadership programs are meant to be accelerators or they risk simply turning into expensive training mechanisms. Leaders must ultimately lead and your program members will crave the opportunity to do so. You must be willing to feed that need, even if it goes against the traditional career pathing and seniority norms you have. Trying to maintain organizational parity and forcing everyone to “wait in line” will kill progress.

Gold star mentality
Leadership programs should be a privilege. Your recruiting criteria should reflect the caliber you are looking for and you should be steadfast in these expectations throughout all economic cycles. Don’t turn your program into an orientation program for anyone that wants it. Likewise, this is a privilege that must be earned, thus it is important to monitor progress and performance throughout and not be afraid to differentiate and take action on laggards. Your program is for the best, don’t accept less than that. Differentiation is necessary.

Trying to grow too fast
Programs are difficult to implement and require a lot of trial and error in order to optimize a program for your unique needs. What is effective for another organization may not be effective for you.  All too often programs try to start out too big and grow too fast without acknowledging that this is a unique and iterative journey that needs to be flexible and patient. Further, expectations need to be grounded to allow for a program to evolve. Start small and build gradually.  

Today’s trend
Leadership is a long term and continuous cultivation process and your program needs to be integrated into your business in a meaningful way. Programs are often started by a few passionate individuals but need to be able to live on their own and not be reliant on those individuals in the long term. Unless the program becomes part of how the business operates and is looked at by all levels as integral to the future, it won’t stand the test of time and will eventually fizzle. These programs require too much effort for it to just be today’s hot initiative. It must be part of how you think about your business.

Developing leaders is complicated and sometimes a formal program is the way to go. However, this is by no means a plug and play endeavor and requires a very high level of engagement and commitment by you and your business. You must take responsibility to actively manage such programs and give it the attention that it warrants. Often times the maintenance seems more trouble than its worth, but if done well, it can pay off exponentially.