Let’s say that you attend a leadership training program, see an educational video, or read a book on the importance of inspiring people around you to innovate – to try new things that are going to give your business or unit that edge no one else has. The idea is compelling, and you start visualizing a better future ahead of you. You might even see your business receiving a prize for the most innovative company in the field, your unit being acclaimed as the most innovative in the company, or you receiving a bonus. You go to work next morning and share your vision with your supervisees. Everyone gets inspired and ideas start bubbling right away. You can feel the energy around you and it is contagious – “This is amazing!”, you might say to yourself. To your surprise, a week later you find out that your supervisees are fighting over ideas, that your business is trying to fix what is not broken, and that nothing is getting done. You swallow hard and suddenly ask yourself if you are in the right path to ruin your hard earned business or to be fired from your job. You now have a burning potato in your hands and have no idea how to deal with it.
Unfortunately, scenarios like this are surprisingly common and their end results more devastating than we tend to anticipate. Fortunately, if you understand the dysfunctions of leadership training, learn how to navigate the leadership industry, and learn to use the advice you may receive, you will be in a privileged position to dodge scenarios like this and to harvest the benefits of the training. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the unintended effects of leadership training, and see whether some of the advice and training out there is aiding or impairing your goals and effectiveness. We will do this by looking at the 4 key dysfunctional things most of us end up doing after attending a leadership training program; and by listing established ways to get the most of your training.
1. You end up doing too much of a good thing
I grew up in the West and my grandmother used to say “everything in moderation; nothing in excess”. If I had grown up in, for example, China my grandmother would probably have said something around the lines of “too much can be worse than too little”. See the similarity across cultures? Yes, these are actual proverbs and aphorisms used in European countries, North and South America, China, and Japan, just to mention a few. Even Aristotle argued that success was mainly a question of finding the right mean that exists between the extremes of deficiency and excesses.
Research on leadership is, not surprisingly, aligned with the Aristotelian perspective, and worldwide shared proverbs. By now, it is well established that the majority of desirable leadership competencies cause harm when taken too far, or have costs at high levels that outweigh their benefits. Researchers call this the too-much-of-a-good-thing effect, and it appears to occur in almost all things in life and work.
For example, believing in yourself and in your competences is critical to lead others. However, when you believe excessively in yourself you become overconfident, you keep using the same failing strategies, you stop learning and applying new things, and your leadership becomes, in a nutshell, sloppy. A little bit of self-doubt about yourself as a leader may give you the urge to continually learn new things needed to face the challenges we all have ahead of us.
Let’s look at another example. Let’s say that you are proud of how ethical you are at work, that you do the right thing no matter what, and that you measure success not only by results but also by how they were achieved. You are an ethical leader. How can this become detrimental if overdone? Research has shown that leaders who place an excessive emphasis on ethics tend to become judgmental of what is right and wrong. This projects an image of unattainable perfection and leaves supervisees feeling morally flawed, unsupported, and less willing to go the extra mile that is critical for so many projects.
Despite this overwhelming evidence, we do not see that many training programs, talks, books, or blogs on leadership urging you to be average at something. Maybe this is not the most inspiring message to convey, maybe it is a poor marketing strategy to sell books or a training program, or maybe people simply do not want to hear that – after all, who wants to be average at something?
In contrast, leadership training often focuses mainly on overdeveloping the skills that are considered to matter the most – inspiration, ethics, trust, and empathy are a few examples that we see all the time. In truth, many of these skills, if not all, are important for leadership development. However, fine-tuning and finding the right level for your particular context is usually as important, or even more important, as learning and applying a new skill. Very rarely do we see this balance being stressed in leadership training.
Takeaway: Otherwise beneficial and positive leadership skills can cause harm when taken too far. To avoid doing too much of a good leadership thing to the point of regret, after learning something new, fine tune the level of that skill, to the level that works for you and your context, so that you harvest its benefits and not its drawbacks.
2. You end up becoming rigid in leadership
Leadership is complex. As a leader you are responsible for creating good relationships with each of your team members; for boosting their own relationships and solving tensions when things derail; and for guiding the entire team towards something valuable. You are also supposed to promote your supervisees’ development and careers, while guaranteeing that the company achieves its key performance indicators. In the meantime, you have to deal with the politics of your workplace and with the shortcomings of your own boss. The list goes on and on, and you are supposed to achieve and promote all of this in a business environment where leadership positions are no longer stable and leaders are regularly fired.
Is being empathic, trustworthy, ethical, servant, empowering or whatever is the new trend, really the key to “be a great leader” and to deal with the complexity you have on your hands as a leader? Can you achieve all things above by being just empathic and listening to your supervisees? Or just by inspiring them to follow your vision to innovate? We doubt.
Just because a skill or competence is important for leadership it does not mean that it should replace other skills or competencies. This becomes particularly important when the new skill you learn appears to be the polar opposite of another skill. On the surface it looks like you must choose one or the other – and the leadership training program is telling you to choose the new one. For example, if you are told to listen and empower your supervisees, you must stop taking charge, allocating work, and making supervisees accountable. If you are told to inspire others to innovate, you must stop following procedures and having clear rules to follow. Nothing could be farther from truth.
You can listen to other people’s concerns and treat them well, while also holding them accountable if they slack at work. You can stimulate innovation and create a vibrant environment in your business, while also following rules and procedures that simply work. Leaders who embrace a multitude of skills (including those skills that appear to be opposing each other) are the ones with most success. Research goes as far as indicating that up to half of what separates successful and unsuccessful leaders is their ability to harmoniously balance what appears to be opposite skills.
A key reason to balance multiple leadership competencies is that each one only promotes small improvements in your performance. Moreover, these small improvements are often highly contextual (meaning they only work for some people and in some business sectors). But because many leadership programs are giving you training on a specific competence, you run into the risk of becoming rigid in your leadership approach and unable to cope with all the demands associated with a leadership position.
This does not mean that you should start developing multiple leadership competences at the same time. To master and fine-tune a competence you need time and practice. It is reasonable to focus on one or two at a time. However, it is important to keep in mind that the new leadership competence is just another tool for you to achieve your goals, not the tool.
Takeaway: To develop yourself as a leader you need to master new competencies. Probably you will benefit from focusing on one at a time. However, to become a successful leader you need to find a harmonious balance between the competencies you master. When you start using a new competence, make sure that you are also using a complementary/opposite competence. For example, research shows that trying to innovate without also following rules, procedures, and clear goals, leads to meaningless change and disappointing results.
3. You end up hurting some facets of your effectiveness, if not all
“How to be a great leader”, “What great leaders do”, “How to lead and inspire others”, and “How to be a successful leader” capture the spirit of some common headlines in the leadership industry. Even universities frequently claim that they are training the leaders of the future and that they have the most inspiring leadership training programs.
Every time we read these things an array of questions pops up in our minds. How to be a great leader for what? To promote your supervisees’ careers and life paths; to hold your job, get a promotion or perhaps make more money; or to achieve the key performance indicators your business is targeting – sales, reduced turnover, increased number of pieces produced, innovation? We could go on, but you got the point.
The key argument here is that words like effectiveness, greatness or success have multiple facets and meanings. For example, being an effective leader might mean that you lead a profitable team in terms of sales, you successfully recovered the reputation of your brand after a scandal, your supervisees are committed and willing to continue working with you and not with a rival business, or that your supervisees are growing as professionals.
How you measure success, effectiveness or greatness may define your approach as a leader. Let’s take the case of empowering leadership: you share your power, motivate and support the development of others. In recent years, we have seen quite a few leadership training programs painting a picture of empowering leadership as the solution to all problems in business – from motivating millennials to exponentially increasing performance. However, research shows that empowering leadership is particularly effective for promoting creativity, but not so much for getting things done. If you blindly start empowering others in the hope of greatly enhancing objective performance (for example, number of pieces produced), you might face disappointing results.
Also, in many circumstances what is beneficial for the leader is not necessarily beneficial for the business or the supervisees. Is the severance package the CEO gets after pushing the company to a precipice good for business and for stimulating employees’ professional growth? Again, how you define and measure success, effectiveness and greatness matters – the severance package contributes to the success of the leader but maybe not so much for the future success and survival of the company.
So, on top of fine-tuning a new leadership competence and finding out how to incorporate that competence with what you already do, it is critical that you also develop an in depth understanding of the role that new competence has on the multiple facets of effectiveness of your work or business. In some cases, it might enhance a few effectiveness facets and be harmless to the others. In other cases, it might enhance a facet and harm others.
For example, let’s say that you enroll in a training program focused on developing a set of competencies to enhance your team’s sales (a specific facet of effectiveness). The program is well designed and you see merit in the idea that focusing on developing a short list of leadership competencies is helpful to enhance sales. So, you implement what you learned and even fine-tune it. Congratulations, you managed to boost your teams’ sales! However, after a while the members of your top sales team are burning out and leaving the company. The issue is that an unbalanced focus on sales left you more prone to overlook your supervisees’ needs (another facet of effectiveness).
Takeaway: Leadership effectiveness, success and greatness have multiple facets and meanings. Before adopting a new leadership skill ensure it matters for what you are trying to achieve and pay attention to its effects on other facets of effectiveness.
4. You end up doing things that sound great and feel good but that are not true and definitely do not work
Leadership training is a big industry. Depending on the estimates, between 14 and 20 billion dollars are invested every year in leadership training and development, just in the US. With all this spending we would expect leaders to be well equipped to face the challenges ahead. However, the evidence for this is weak and mixed. On the one hand, it looks like that all these financial resources are not being invested but rather thrown away as many estimates  indicate that there is no substantial association between leadership training and improved productivity. Public opinion appears to follow this perspective: Although we see a steady increase in leadership training spending, there is a documented decrease in the confidence people have in their leaders. On the other hand, recent large scale studies show that well-designed leadership training programs work and actually increase multiple aspects of effectiveness (from 8% to 28%).
We can identify four key pillars defining the failure or success of leadership training programs: 1) those who deliver the training, 2) those who buy the training, 3) the priorities of reputable organizations, and 4) the expectations promoted for leadership training. When one or more of these pillars topples, a chain reaction tends to occur, and you end up doing things that sound great and may even feel good, but that simply do not work. Let’s look at each pillar individually.
Who is delivering the leadership training?
First, those who deliver the training are not necessarily equipped with the knowledge to do so. Credentials, knowledge and experience are not requirements to sell training or advice on leadership – anyone can write a book, a blog or sell a new leadership program. While their good intentions are not in question, in many cases they simply lack the scientific knowledge on leadership or have limited, if not flawed, experience leading others.
Developing an effective leadership training program is not an easy task. If the person planning and delivering the training misses an important detail, you may end up paying for a service that sounds great, but that has no benefit whatsoever or that can even harm your effectiveness. How well identified were the training needs and to what extent was the training program developed in alignment with those needs? Which delivery methods are going to be used (for example, informative lectures, on the job-practice, exercise-based training, and feedback-based training)? How well do the delivery methods complement each other on facilitating the expected results? How many sessions are planned and what is the number of days separating each session? Will the program be delivered face-to-face or are you going to follow the program by yourself virtually?
These are some of the questions that define whether a leadership training program is effective or a potential waste of time and money. However, some of these questions are frequently overlooked. For example, in 2015, almost one third of US federal government agencies did not identify the training needs of their senior executives before running training programs. This has the potential to seriously undermine the effectiveness of an otherwise well-developed program.
Who is buying the leadership training?
Second, those who buy the training are sometimes looking more for entertainment than for actual learning experiences. As a consequence, leadership training has become more about inspiring and boosting attendees’ confidence in whatever skill is trending, than about giving advice based on the best evidence available. What people want, the market produces. There is nothing inherently wrong with that; it is simply something to take into consideration when thinking about undertaking leadership training.
We have developed multiple leadership and teamwork training programs throughout the years. Lately, we have noticed that the majority of attendees start the training with the mindset of taking a few days off work to have some fun. Actually, we have been increasingly hearing expressions like: “I came here to relax a bit and maybe learn a thing or two, but you guys are not playing around; this is serious, informative and demanding training” and “These sessions are more demanding than a full workday.” Although we find these expressions personally rewarding, they also indicate that, nowadays, many of us expect more leadership entertainment than training. One thing is a positive learning environment filled with well-crafted, dynamic and practical exercises designed to push your leadership competencies further. Another thing is having a good time and feeling inspired without any new enriching experiences or even reflections on previous experiences. While a well developed competence stays with you, particularly if you continue using it, inspiration typically goes away soon after the training ends.
What are the priorities of reputable organizations when delivering leadership training?
Third, we also see a change in the priorities of reputable organizations such as universities. It is not uncommon nowadays to see well-intended teaching assistants that lack experience and even knowledge delivering professors’ sessions. As another example, while working in top universities some of us have seen colleagues heavily focused on ensuring that students were having a good time and feeling good. Enhancing students’ leadership skills and delivering updated, rigorous and evidence-based content that can actually make a difference in their lives was a secondary concern. And many business schools appear to be fine with this as it appears to attract more students, at least in the short term.
What are the expectations for leadership training?
Fourth, expectations for leadership training and for leadership itself are frequently unrealistic. Leadership has an important function in companies and teams, but it is only one factor among many others. While leadership training can improve your team or company effectiveness, it will not solve all the problems of your team or company. A leader’s ability to reach goals is a factor not only of leadership, but also of the surrounding environment.
However, while most models of leadership acknowledge this in one way or another, it is frequent for training programs to overlook context. Things like your economic environment, the business sector in which you operate, the organizational culture and strategy, the overall quality of your team, the competence of the people you supervise, just to mention a few, matter as much or even more than leadership. If you change your leadership approach and everything remains the same, it is very likely that you end up with the same results as before, if not frustrated or in trouble (do you recall the opening scenario on the leader empowering innovation)?
The end result
As a result of these flaws in the leadership training industry you end up relying on advice focused on doing things that sound and feel great, but that are not true and definitely do not work. The end result is you being unprepared to face the difficulties ahead, you buying into alternative realities that are comfortable but that do not equip you with the skills that can make a difference in your professional life, and you facing disappointing and frustrating results. Not to mention that for a few hours of entertainment you may put yourself in debt for the upcoming years, as most leadership training programs are expensive for the majority of us. It is always a good policy to see if you can afford a leadership training program and to conduct an honest cost-benefit analysis.
Takeaway: Well designed leadership training programs work, poorly designed program do not work and can even harm you effectiveness. Many leadership training programs, even those from reputable places, may lack quality, may not be based on solid evidence, and may not produce the sometimes unrealistic outcomes they promote. Before buying or enrolling in a leadership training program, do your research and a cost-benefit analysis. For example, see the credentials the instructors have (professional or academic); talk with former students and see if they actually learned something; ask yourself what do you want out of the training (to improve your leadership competencies or to have a good time); and assess not only which outcomes you are targeting but also if leadership is the core booster of those outcomes (if not, seek alternatives other than leadership training).
Let’s try to do something together. This exercise is focused on leadership but you can apply it on almost any other aspect of your life. First, identify the leadership skills that you are pushing too far, to the point of hurting you. Also, identify the ones that are dominating your behavior and to which you do not have an opposite to balance things out. Second, see if the skills you are relying on are actually beneficial for what you want to achieve or if they simply look good on paper but are hurting your success. If you don’t mind sharing, please comment below along with the solution you are tempted to implement.
Third, if you find someone struggling with something you already figured out; please share with them the solutions you adopted and the reliable methods and strategies you used to solve the issue. In many instances, learning from someone who already figured out how to solve a leadership issue in a given environment is as effective as an expensive training program.
Please do not bash any particular program, person or company. The idea is to share what we know and to learn from each others’ expertise, not to point fingers. There are a lot of great leadership programs out there, but you have to be able to spot them and to use their training effectively.
Leadership training is important to boost your success. However, it can also do more bad than good, and even hurt your success. Being aware of the dysfunctions of the leadership industry and having a clear picture of the things you can end up doing as a consequence, helps you navigate the industry and harvest the incredible benefits that leadership training can have.
As always, thank you for investing your time with Managing Life at Work. It has been a pleasure to share this information with you. If you think this might help a friend, please share the post. See you all in the next post (do not forget to subscribe to our newsletter and/or to bookmark us). Until then, keep translating leadership training and advice into lasting effectiveness.
References and further reading
- ^ Grant, A. M., and Schwartz, B. (2011). “Too much of a good thing: The challenge and opportunity of the inverted U.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 61-76.
- ^ Pierce, J. R., and Aguinis, H. (2013). “The too-much-of-a-good-thing effect in management.” Journal of Management, 39, 313-228.
- ^ Stouten, J., Van Dijke, M., Mayer, D. M., De Cremer, D., and Euwema, M. C. (2013). “Can a leader be seen as too ethical? The curvilinear effects of ethical leadership.” The Leadership Quarterly, 24, 680-695.
- ^ Kaplan, R. E., and Kaiser, R. B. (2003). “Developing versatile leadership.” MIT Sloan Management Review, 44, 19-26.
- ^ Kaplan, R. E., and Kaiser, R. B. (2009). “Stop overdoing your strengths.” Harvard Business Review, 87, 100-103.
- ^ Mathieu, J. E., Maynard, M. T., Rapp, T., and Gilson, L. (2008). “Team effectiveness 1997-2007: A review of recent advancements and a glimpse into the future.” Journal of Management, 34, 410-476.
- ^ Lee, A., Willis, S., and Tian, A. W. (2018). “Empowering leadership: A meta‐analytic examination of incremental contribution, mediation, and moderation.” Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39, 306-325.
- ^ Flannery, N. P. (2012). “Executive compensation: The true cost of the 10 largest CEO severance packages of the past decade.” Forbes.
- ^ Gurdjian, P., Halbeisen, T., and Lane, K. (2014). “Why Leadership-Development Programs Fail.” McKinsey Quarterly.
- ^ Beer, M., Finnström, M., and Schrader, D. (2016). “Why leadership training fails – and what to do about it.” Harvard Business Review, 94, 50–57.
- ^ Westfall, C. (2019). “Leadership development is a $366 billion industry: Here’s why most programs don’t work.” Forbes.
- ^ Kaiser, R. B., and Curphy, G. (2013). “Leadership development: The failure of an industry and the opportunity for consulting psychologists.” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 65, 294-302.
- ^ a b Lacerenza, C. N., Reyes, D. L., Marlow, S. L., Joseph, D. L., and Salas, E. (2017). “Leadership training design, delivery, and implementation: A meta-analysis.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 102, 1686-1718.