Why Leadership Development Programs Fail? - FocusU

Why Leadership Development Programs Fail?

Organisations, world over, spend millions of dollars in training their employees in leadership development programs every year. Yet, in many cases, not much benefit has been found in terms of performance or personal growth. A few of the reasons for the ineffectiveness of such programs could be:

Not Appreciating The Specific Context

A leader who is very good at the growth stage of an organization, may actually struggle during the consolidation stage. Similarly, the organizational context for each organization may itself be very different. A leader in a start-up would need different leadership skills compared to a leader in say, a software corporation; Which means, going with a one-size-fits-all strategy is a recipe for disaster. Before designing your LDP, you need to stop and ask:

What is this program for? 

Viewing Organisations Only As An ‘Aggregation Of Individuals‘

Going by this logic, the “right” individuals are selected for imparting the “right” knowledge, skills and attitudes to improve the effectiveness of the organization. As a popular HBR article says: “This thinking doesn’t acknowledge that organizations are systems of interacting elements: Roles, responsibilities, relationships, structure, processes, leadership styles, people’s professional and cultural backgrounds, HR policies and practices.“

If the system does not change, it will not support and sustain individual behaviour change – in FACT, it will set people up to fail. Thus, before chalking out your next LDP intervention, ask yourself –

Are the conditions fertile for such an intervention?

Underestimating The Power Of Mindsets

We ran a LDP for a senior cohort in a PSU some time back. Many of the participants came in with the mindset that “these things cannot work here.” While they were partially right, since the context of an organization needs to be addressed before any intervention, their rigid mindsets didn’t help the cause either. Before designing your LDP, ask :

Do we need to work on the mindsets before we roll out an LDP?

Not ‘Marrying’ Learning With Real Work

Adults typically retain just 10 percent of what they hear in classroom lectures, versus nearly two-thirds when they learn by doing. When LDPs are designed as pure reflection exercises, without being married with real projects, where people can implement that learning, the learning quickly dissipates. Before designing your LDP, ask:

How will we marry the learning from the LDP with opportunities to practice those learnings?

Not Aligning With Organisation’s Vision & Strategies

When LDPs are designed without keeping the overall organizational direction as defined by its vision, mission and strategy in mind – they can end up being shallow intellectual exercises. Individual growth is a worthy objective – but LDPs are meant to increase organizational effectiveness. So, don’t forget to pause and ask –

 How is this LDP aligned with the organizational vision and strategy?

Senior Leaders Not Modelling The Leadership Behaviours The LDP Is Trying To Drive

This is pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? If leaders up the ladder don’t model the way and speak the same language that participants in an LDP are supposed to pick up and drive, cynicism quickly sets in. And the LDP is wasted. So, once again, ask yourselves –

Are senior leaders in alignment with the content and modelling it themselves?

Senior Leaders Not Being Sufficiently Involved

LDPs are designed to increase organizational effectiveness and solve problems or challenges that the organization is facing. If senior leaders are not sufficiently involved in terms of rooting for its success, the whole effort can be wasted. Before designing your LDP, ask: Are senior leaders sufficiently invested in the success of this LDP?

Not Having A “Psychologically Safe” Climate

Research by Amy Edmondson of HBS, and Anita Woolley, of Carnegie Mellon show that organizations need “fertile soil” in place before the “seeds” of training interventions can grow. When the researchers looked at a corporate training program aimed at improving problem solving and communication between managers and subordinates, they discovered that improvements were greater in units that had already developed a “psychologically safe” climate in which subordinates felt free to speak up. Thus, another important question to ask yourself before an LDP intervention: 

Have we created sufficient “psychological safety” for participants to blossom?

Failing To Measure Results

How should the impact of a LDP be measured? 

Too often, it is only through participants’ feedback of the session. This can be dangerous since a syllabus that is more pleasing than is challenging to participants can be expected to be rated better. To truly measure ROI – measurement needs to be done meticulously over longer periods of time.

How did the individual performance change? What does the 360 degree feedback about the individual now say? Though linking with business metrics may be a challenge, tracking them will give some indication of how effective the LDP has been. It is better than doing nothing. Thus, before investing in an LDP intervention, ask yourself –

 How are we going to measure the impact?

Bad Design Of The LDP

Some fundamental design issues in a LDP sometimes hamper its effectiveness. A few such errors are in the areas of:

  • Who has to attend a LDP? It shouldn’t be a “keep-everyone-happy” scheme. When participants are carefully chosen, the LDP has a better chance at success
  • Designing it as a one time affair. All skills, especially Leadership ones, are honed over years. Thinking of a LDP as a one-time classroom engagement which will move the needle is gross inexperience.
  • Being run and driven by the wrong people. When LDPs are developed by senior executives or HR executives, who don’t necessarily have the experience or holistic understanding, it often comes across as shallow. Assuming that anyone in a senior position is competent enough to design LDPs is like saying that one can be a good cook just because one knows how to eat! LDPs are best designed by professionals who know how to teach and facilitate.

Before designing your LDP, ask:

What is the experience of the people designing and running the LDPs?


Instead of being cynical about LDPs having a very small incidence of success, organizations need to think through their leadership development programs more holistically and plug all these reasons that are often the cause of their failure. When done well LDPs can be extremely impactful and empowering in scaling up leaders and consequently boosting organizational growth.


Read Also  Why Success Builds Teams?



1) https://hbr.org/2016/10/why-leadership-training-fails-and-what-to-do-about-i

2) https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/leadership/why-leadership-development-programs-fail  

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