A colleague of mine referenced me to an article on the Harvard Business Review® Blog Network over the weekend that she knew I would find of interest. The blog explored a recent study on the level of dissatisfaction corporate boards were expressing on the failure of Talent Management in the corporations they oversee. According to the study, and to no surprise, Talent Management is failing miserably in most organizations. I say to no surprise because Talent Management is the latest offshoot of the mainstream leadership development industry, which has perhaps the most dismal performance record of any professional service industry on the planet. Over the past twenty years alone, corporations and institutions have invested upwards of $1 trillion (yes, trillion) on leadership development. Yet, only 1% of executives score excellent in eight key competencies of leadership, 90% score below average (McKinsey & Co®), and employee disengagement has been mired at 70% for over a decade (Gallup®).
As I was reading the blog, and here’s the correlation to today’s subject, I came across another entry on the HBR Blog Network entitled, “Why So Many Leadership Programs Ultimately Fail” by a gentleman named Peter Bregman. In the blog, Mr. Bregman states, “Ever since I started teaching leadership on mountaineering expeditions in the late 80s, the question of how to develop leaders has absorbed me. I’ve designed and taught everything from one-day team buildings to 20-day wilderness trips, from business school classes to corporate trainings, from simulations to executive leadership courses.” At the risk of sounding facetious, which is not my intention, I can’t help but wonder if this question that has absorbed him for 25 years might have been answered if he had ever actually been a leader rather than a career teacher of leadership?
It’s strange to me…no other professional discipline has followed such a misguided path. Medical surgeons, with decades of experience practicing medicine, are called upon to develop and educate the next generation of surgeons. Senior scientists educate up and coming scientists. Pilots are trained by experienced pilots. Yet, next generation business leaders have not, and are not, being educated and developed by experienced business leaders. They are being trained by career consultants and organizational psychologists.
The irony that runs through Mr. Bregman’s blog would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. An author of several best-selling books on leadership, he comments, “What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical” and follows on by emphasizing the importance of not getting sidetracked, distracted or losing focus by stating, “And you can’t learn them from reading a book…”
Mr. Bregman’s main point in his blog is to share an apparent epiphany he’s recently had regarding emotional courage. This, he believes, is the key to successful leadership. It’s a fair point, and one that was eloquently written about eleven years ago by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their seminal book, “Leadership On The Line – Staying Alive Through The Dangers Of Leading“. Another irony is that this book was published by the Harvard Business School press. It’s also a lesson I learned personally in my first business managerial role leading a national sales team nearly 25 years ago.
Another supposition in which Mr. Bregman appears misguided is, “The goal of any leadership development program is to change behavior.” Isn’t that the goal of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? Behaviors in the workplace are manifestations of perceptions, orientations and conditioned, neurological responses to emotional stimuli. This focus on behaviors is just what one would expect by psychologists. It’s what they know, so it’s what they do. Shouldn’t the goal of leadership development be to improve business performance by imparting leaders with the tools and adaptive thinking skills necessary to communicate, engage and inspire others to perform at their best? Isn’t the goal to develop nascent leaders’ ability to lead in any circumstance?
The final kicker in Mr. Bregman’s blog is his mea culpa, “By that measure, most of what I’ve done – and what I’ve seen others do – has failed.” He goes on to add, “Here’s why: We’re teaching the wrong things in the wrong ways.” Wow, that’s an amazing statement to read on an HBR blog. I cannot help but wonder how Mr. Bregman’s past clients feel about the fact that he’s admitting his work, of which I’m sure he’s charged handsomely for, has been a decades long experiment trying to figure out for himself how to develop leaders? And this grand experiment in leadership development has proven one thing…both Mr. Bregman and the mainstream leadership development industry still has a lot to learn about leadership.
I didn’t write this to personally take Mr. Bregman to task. This is, however, highly indicative of what’s wrong with the leadership development industry. Leadership, as Mr. Bregman says himself, cannot be learned from a book. It must be experienced, first hand, and evolve over time under the tutelage of a seasoned leader. Unfortunately, there are very few seasoned leaders in the leadership development industry.
© 2013, Terry Murray.