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Why Most Leadership Development Efforts Fail

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

“You can’t be all things to everyone and still be effective.” - Robert F. Smith, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Vista Equity Partners

George was seen as an up-and-coming leader in the organization. People who worked for him liked and respected him. And those in Senior Leadership saw his potential, so he was slated to attend the company’s leadership development workshop.

George was ecstatic! He loved the organization and wanted to move up and contribute as much as possible. He saw this opportunity as a positive step in that progression. Plus, he had some challenges in his job that he hoped he could learn to deal with more successfully.

After discovering he was slated to attend, George did not hear much more about the training until about a week before it began. The email gave him all the details, and he was excited again. He was excited until he looked at his calendar and saw how much he had to do.

Because the training meant so much to him, he was determined to be focused while there, so he worked hard to catch his projects before leaving for the workshop.

George loved the workshop! The facilitator was great, the content was helpful, and the food was good! He was so motivated by the innovative ideas and the people he met. He gained confidence as they practiced some of the things they had learned. As a part of the program, he built an action plan. He left the two days wholly stoked about what he had learned and how he would be able to apply it.

After the Workshop

George awoke the following day and reviewed his action plan. He was excited because he knew what to do to be a better leader. Then, George got back to work. As he fired up his computer, he checked his voicemail.

Twenty-three messages.

His heart sank a little. As he listened to the messages, taking notes when needed on his next steps, he opened his email and found an even more depressing sight. Ninety-one emails. A glance found that there was little fluff there. It was not twenty serious emails and many readings or jokes; it was a solid ninety-one email to read, work through, reply to and act on.

After getting a cup of coffee, George went to say hello to his team. This took a while because they had questions and things they wanted to talk to him about, which was only natural since he had been out of pocket for two days. By 9:15, he was back at his desk, ready to tackle all the messages, including the seven new emails that had come in while he was out.

By 3:00, he had mainly forgotten about his action plan. He remembered it only when he saw it in his briefcase. He took it out and looked at it wistfully. He was still committed to working on those items, but they would have to wait. The next project meeting was all day tomorrow.

Reviewing the Situation

Perhaps the situation above sounds familiar to you. What is written up in the After the Workshop heading looks promising: a willing learner, a well-designed workshop, and a person leaving excited about his action plan. This story might be a bit too rosy. Admittedly, not everyone who attends training will be as excited and motivated as George. Still, it does not matter in the end because an initiative-taking person like George will not get as much from this effort as he could or even wants to.


Because while most leadership development programs focus on developing an excellent training program, that is a small part of the overall likelihood of success. Training is an event, but learning (including leadership development) is a process.

We do not learn critical, complex life skills in a brief instant. We can get an insight, an aha, and an inspiration in a moment. We can get ideas, approaches, checklists, and knowledge in an event. But skills come to us over time, not in a single, one-time training course (regardless of how well it is designed or how excellent the trainer is). Skills come with practice and application.

Leadership development is a process; if those efforts look like events, the investment return will never be high.

Much can be written about specific things that can be done to make the process more effective, but you can start without that list of ideas. Reread the story above. Connect it to your situation, and then think of two things you can do to make your leadership development process (whether for yourself or your organization) more successful.

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