Are Good Leaders (mostly) Born or (mostly) Developed?
It is the holy grail of managing leaders. If good leaders are born, then succession planning is really a selection issue. Once you identify key leadership characteristics, evaluate candidates on them, make your choices and then you are done. This makes leadership identification a very cost-effective process. If good leaders are primarily developed, then with the right training programs and experiences almost anyone can be an effective leader. However, it makes leadership development a very expensive process. In last month’s blog, I wrote about the techniques often used for selecting leaders. This month, I am focusing more on leadership development.
We usually think of leaders as those who can inspire and motivate others to contribute more discretionary effort, and effective managers as those who ensure that things get done consistently well. Of course, they are not mutually exclusive and when we talk about leadership development, we are usually talking about both concepts.
While there is a body of research on what techniques work in leadership development, it is miniscule when you consider how many programs are available. Part of the reason for so little research is a poor vetting process by HR executives who do not demand objective data from vendors that demonstrate the effectiveness of programs. At the very least, consumers of these programs should ask to see research that shows people who attend the program are demonstrably better 1-2 years out. If HR only invested in programs from developers who had this research, we would see fewer, but better, leadership development programs in use today.
Because there are so many over-hyped leadership development programs available, let’s start with what does not work according to research data. Note that we are looking at changes in performance, not simply how much participants liked the program or how much they thought they improved. Below is a list of leadership development techniques that are labeled by research as ineffective:
- 1. Job shadowing for senior managers
- 2. Outdoor activity-based programs (rope climbing, white-water rafting, etc.)
- 3. Paper-based self-study leadership modules
- 4. Executive MBA and web-based self-study modules implemented late in the person’s career
The second one is most interesting as such team-building weekends sound so attractive, but they do not lead to better leader performance and are a waste of time and money. Your leaders could go out bowling together and achieve the same results for far less money (even if you got t-shirts made). Be wary of the fact that the companies that run these types of activities on do not claim you will see performance improvements and consider too that it appears that eventually in a person’s career, leadership skills are difficult to change.
Which leadership development programs do have data to support them?
- 1. Mentoring
- 2. In-house universities
- 3. Job rotations
- 4. Executive MBA and web-based programs started early in a person’s career
The fact that there are some leadership development techniques which work shows that leadership skills can be grown and cultivated. Note that those listed above do not rely on quick fixes. Leadership and good management skills are difficult and complex to master, so you should expect that they take some time to develop. The successful techniques are interactive because leadership is a skill practiced in the presence of others and reliant on interpersonal exchanges. It should be learned that way.
As with all employees, it is always less expensive to improve your overall talent through good hiring practices than through training. If you are looking to develop employees that have already been hired, it is best to take a long view and allocate your resources accordingly, despite the pressure to come up with something quick and easy. Some senior manager will always be running into your office talking about the newest and coolest development program, but it is incumbent on HR to be a careful consumer of leadership development products and services.
Clearly, individuals with existing leadership talent can be selected from applicant pools fairly early in their careers. Some people have good leadership skills and/or instincts before they come to your door. They may not have been born that way, but you don’t have to invest much into their development. Cultivating leaders and leadership skills from scratch is a trickier business, though. Indeed, some programs work better than others, but they require a strategic view. As with most things in life, there are no short cuts, so be wary of those programs and techniques that sound too good to be true – they probably are.
Warren Bobrow, Ph.D. specializes in employee selection, manager assessment, structured interviews, and opinion surveys. He has worked in a diverse range of industries, including customer contact centers, finance, health care, petroleum, retail, distribution, telecommunications, utilities, and apparel manufacturing throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Dr. Bobrow strives to create assessment programs that a client can easily manage and are designed to meet their specific needs.
Dr. Bobrow received his Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology from the University of Tennessee. You can his blog for occasional comments on leadership and employee selection at www.allaboutperformance.biz/blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.