Viewpoint: Why So Many Leadership Development Efforts Fail

By Jeffrey Pfeffer Jul 1, 2016
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Pfeffer​The leadership development enterprise is vast. There is a seemingly infinite number of books, blogs, courses and TED Talks devoted to the topic, many of which come with a hefty price tag. McKinsey & Co. estimates that $14 billion is spent annually on leadership development just in the U.S., while Harvard Kennedy School lecturer Barbara Kellerman puts the amount at $50 billion. My own guess is about $20 billion per year, based on Association for Talent Development data.

Notwithstanding the resources invested and the involvement over decades of numerous conscientious, well-intended individuals, by any and every measure, leadership development has failed. So far, it has not resulted in improved workplaces, leaders or access to leadership talent. Here's evidence.

Data from Gallup, other survey firms and HR consulting firms show low levels of job satisfaction and employee engagement all over the world. My favorite statistic: 35 percent of the respondents in a 2012 Parade survey indicated that they would forgo a substantial pay raise to be able to fire their boss. Despite the best intentions, including those of my Stanford University colleague Bob Sutton, who wrote the best-selling book with the catchy title The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't (Business Plus, 2007), workplace bullying and the harsh treatment of subordinates and co-workers continues, with well-documented negative consequences for the targets of such behavior and their workplaces.

Leaders flame out at unacceptably high levels, given the costs of turnover and the loss of the resources invested in truncated careers. CEO tenures are down and terminations are up, according to data from both The Conference Board and the consultancy Booz & Co. (now PwC's Strategy&).

Companies that have every incentive to justify their expenditures by arguing for the success of their leadership development initiatives instead consistently rate those efforts poorly and admit that they produce insufficient numbers of leaders to meet their needs.

The idea that we should just continue what we are doing makes no sense. Business as usual won't suffice.

Fortunately, HR executives and other senior leaders can fix these problems if they want to—but that's a big "if." Here is what they would need to do:

Evaluate leadership development efforts using the right metrics. Some companies don't measure leadership development at all. Others assess resource consumption or activity levels, such as how many sessions or hours of training employees took part in. And, according to the Institute for Corporate Productivity, many evaluate their efforts using those ubiquitous smiley-face sheets. Very few gauge whether what they are doing actually leads to improvements in engagement, satisfaction, turnover or anything else other than participants' temporary enjoyment of the experience. As research on course evaluations has shown for decades, there is no relationship between instructor evaluations and objective measures of learning. Moreover, if companies reward training that is more focused on entertainment than real learning or growth—or "edu-tainment," as it is sometimes called—they shouldn't be surprised when they don't get the outcomes they want.

Hire people who know what they are doing. Lists of the leading leadership speakers or experts typically include precious few with degrees in social science or any significant leadership experience. The self-proclaimed expertise of many on the Inc. list of a couple of years ago was the ability to talk and present. But knowing social science theory and evidence ought to be table stakes for engaging in the important activity of developing effective leaders.

Stop chasing inspiration. As we know from the various programs to treat obesity, alcoholism and drug abuse, telling inspiring stories doesn't do much to create lasting change. Behavior is a function of social relationships (or networks), cues that prime desired behavior and incentives. Listening to an inspiring speech may motivate someone, but just for a moment, after which the listener returns to the same environment with the same cues, social relationships and incentives.

Face reality. Stop emphasizing the rare examples of excellence that people avidly seek out to reassure themselves that things are all right—or will soon be—notwithstanding the ample contrary evidence. In part because people like to feel happy and comfortable rather than confront problems, authors fill leadership books and blogs with stories about the exceptions rather than the rule. Case in point: Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2001) by my friend Jim Collins (who endorsed my last two books). Collins found only about a dozen of what he calls Level 5 leaders, those who demonstrate modesty and other exemplary characteristics, in the more than 1,400 companies he studied. If we were serious about improving the state of leadership, we would be more concerned with base rates—identifying what the norm is rather than describing the few who surpass it.  In health care, instead of telling nice stories about doctors who wash their hands, quality experts measure hand-washing frequency and then design and evaluate interventions to increase it.

Understand that the problem—and the solutions—begin with us. The key to improvement exists in the decisions we make, or don't make, every day. Rather than bemoan selfish, narcissistic leaders, why not assess narcissism as a way to guide hiring and promotion decisions? Reliable measures of that characteristic have been around for years.

Meanwhile, when pushed to choose between business results and an unwillingness to tolerate harmful behaviors, many organizations will pick the former, even if it comes at the expense of engagement and morale. People complain about the absence of truthfulness but then continue to reward leaders who engage in strategic misrepresentation.

If we want organizational leadership to look any better in the future than it does now, HR must approach it much differently. Fortunately, we know a lot about what is needed and how to do it. So when will we begin? 

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and author of Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time (HarperBusiness, 2015).

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