The Problem With Leadership Training

By Thomas J. Lee

One of the biggest problems in leadership—and it rears its ugly head often in business, politics, academia, the military, and elsewhere—is that persons in senior positions do not know what they do not know about leadership. They don’t even know how much they don’t know, and they don’t realize that many of their assumptions are just flat-out wrong.

In other words, they are blind to their own ignorance. Worse, because they don’t know what they don’t know, they are incurious. They are reluctant and disinclined to so much as wonder.

Making matters still worse, many of them assume that even asking a question about the nature and challenge of effective leadership—or, horrors! enrolling in an online course or a bricks-and-mortar class on leadership for their own growth and development—would reveal some sort of weakness. The last thing they want is to show weakness, so they ignore their own weaknesses altogether.

I see this phenomenon time and time again, in large organizations and small, in prestigious universities, in Fortune 100 corporations, and so very often in politics.

I see corporate vice presidents arrange for expensive, sophisticated training on leadership for everyone in their division or department but bow out of it themselves. After all, they’re too busy, or they already know everything.

I see senior executives pretend to have mastered the art of leadership only to fall back on tired bromides, unproductive reliance on command and control, and finger-pointing blame without so much as a hint of self-accountability.

In the lexicon of the “talk traps” we have recently been discussing in this blog—scroll down for the four essays preceding this one—I see a great deal of Simple Talk, Song and Dance Talk, and Self Talk on the subject. Its collective effect is to excuse the talker from taking ownership of the situation, and that, in turn, has unfortunate implications on people disengagement and cultural stasis.

What accounts for it?

One explanation is pride. People who successfully climb a corporate (or academic, or military, etc.) ladder have justifiable reason to be proud. Certainly they must know something about leadership to have gotten this far, they reason. To be sure, they do know something. But it typically has more to do with technical competencies or internal politics rather than with the real leadership of people, especially of people entrenched in old habits or sitting on the margins of the organization.

Another explanation is confusion over leadership. More often than not, people and publications use the word “leadership” to refer to the highest level of official authority in an organization. They speak unthinkingly of “the leadership of General Motors” or “the leadership of the Republican Party” or “the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church,” to cite three arbitrary examples.

Those usages are not wrong, but they confuse the issue by focusing on roles and glossing over the hard work of real leadership, which commonly doesn’t require a lofty position or impressive title, but always requires real work. The sad reality is that many senior executives couldn’t lead a group of eight-year-old soccer players to the ice-cream stand after a game. So instead of taking ownership for the cultural or operational change they want, they just cast blame and aspersions. It’s easier than laying themselves on the line.

Still another explanation is simply an aversion to learning. Not everyone is inherently eager to learn and grow. For many, their education ended the moment they returned their cap and gown. Many, many people haven’t read a serious work of literature, philosophy, or history in years, even decades. (If you want a list of great books to read, click on the Resources tab above and then go to Books on Leadership. We have listed dozens of books and included brief reviews.) I personally favor well-written biographies and memoirs. The best of them read like fiction but nourish like non-fiction.

With few exceptions, cultural change begins at the top. It has to, because of the power of senior executives to thwart it or promote it. Human nature being what it is, those executives are much more inclined to support something of their own than something developed by anyone else. The old Not Invented Here Syndrome is unfortunately still alive and well.

The question remains: How do we change this sorry situation? The answer, as always, is one person at a time, one choice at a time. Beginning here, beginning now, and beginning with you and me.