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Can We Really Train Leadership?

Leadership programs offer everything from white-water rafting to encounter groups. But do they really train leaders? Yes, if they take a multi-tiered approach and recognize that it takes skill and time to succeed.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Leadership ranks second behind quality as the most popular training area and if the millions of dollars spent annually on leadership training programs is any guide, the answer to the question, “Can We Really Train Leadership?” should be an unqualified “yes.” But Jay Conger, who is executive director of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, believes most of these expensive programs are simply too shallow. Companies are not critical enough, he says, about how they are designed and what they actually accomplish.

Based on a two-year study in which he interviewed some 150 participants, Mr. Conger has produced his own “ideal” set of components for a leadership course. He recommends a multi-tiered approach: personal growth, skill-building, feedback and conceptual awareness. Follow-up training is an essential part of his model. Dogged persistence and commitment are what it takes, he says, not a quick whitewater joyride down the Colorado.

Aside from the actual design of a program, Mr. Conger makes his most telling point in explaining recent radical modifications in our conceptions of leadership, and how these must be reflected in modern-day courses. We now think of leaders as “change masters,” Mr. Conger notes, and good leadership training must teach managers and executives how to anticipate what is on their industry horizon and how to mobilize their organization to shape the future. No matter how thorough and contemporary the training program, however, nothing will work unless it has the complete support and direct involvement of top management.

Plato argued that he needed 50 years to train a good leader. To speed up that process, corporations today are spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually. By sending thousands of executives to leadership training programs, they hope that this year's middle manager will turn into next year's Jack Welch.

With all this attention, leadership now ranks second behind quality as the hottest of the training areas. Programs offering everything from white-water rafting trips that encourage risk-taking to encounter groups that promote self-knowledge are flourishing. Yet lured by promises of instant success, many companies are writing checks without asking critical questions about how programs are designed and what they actually accomplish.

They would do well to start. Despite all the hype, companies belonging to the program-of-the-month club are seeing limited results. Most leadership programs have a half-life of a few days or weeks after the sessions end. Few have developed adequate transfer mechanisms to bring leadership skills back alive to the office, and most are prisoners of a single pedagogical approach that reflects the training of their instructors.

But skeptics take note: Leadership programs can work, and work well, if they use a multi-tiered approach. Effective training depends on the combined use of four different teaching methods, which I call personal growth, skill-building, feedback and conceptual awareness. In addition, programs must provide an opportunity for participants to practice what they have learned back at the office, and top management must demonstrate a commitment to the process. It is not enough to send 20 employees down river; the C.E.O. must also be willing to get in the raft.

Taking my own advice to heart, I decided to embark on a two-year study of the field, trying out the more innovative training programs to evaluate their strengths and limitations. Along the way I interviewed some 150 fellow participants about their perceptions of these learning programs. My aim was not to rank individual programs, but to identify the necessary components of an ideal leadership course. Not the Platonic ideal, but one that produces faster results.


It is day one of the Visionquest Program, run by A.R.C. International Ltd. of Englewood, Colo. My 15 classmates and I are sitting in a semi-circle on the floor of a lodge just outside Vail. Our aim over the next five days is to develop a powerful long-term vision for ourselves and for our organizations--one that goes beyond ordinary goals.

The instructor tells us to imagine ourselves in a sailboat--a sailboat that is sinking fast. All of us will drown, the instructor says, except for three lucky people who earn a seat on the boat's small life raft. As a group we must decide who among us is most worthy of saving. Each of us will have a chance to deliver a two-minute salvation speech declaring why we should be saved.

Skeptical of the exercise, I nonetheless jot down some notes and offer my plea:

"I thought about the qualities I would look for in someone whom I would save, and I decided on three: a sense of heart, the possibility of making a contribution to society and the quality of a good human being. I feel I possess those qualities. I also feel that there are others in the group with those same qualities, and I am willing to sacrifice myself to those individuals."

In my clever mind I am hoping this last statement will garner me salvation. My cleverness proves to be quite shallow. In the end, I receive only one vote. Those chosen to be saved are the individuals who have truly spoken from their hearts about what remained for them to do in their lives. Several speeches were so emotionally touching that many of us had tears in our eyes. Their visions were powerful and deeply personal.

A few months later, I am in trouble again: I am standing at the edge of a cliff, a real cliff, near Santa Fe, N.M., about to jump off. The only thing that will keep me from crashing into the canyon floor 125 feet below is the wire-and-harness contraption I am wearing, courtesy of Pecos River Learning Centers Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn. I turn to an instructor for the center, hoping he has some sage advice to soothe my fears. He just smiles and says, "Look straight ahead." Some advice, I think to myself. I step forward and stand with my toes over the edge. I sense both legs, and bend my knees. A second later I am over the edge.

What does winning a seat in a lifeboat and jumping off a cliff have to do with leadership? Plenty, my instructors assure me. The object of such outdoor adventures and psychological exercises is to empower individuals to become more risk-oriented--whether with personal feelings or life and limb--and to take responsibility for their lives through a clear vision.

A simple premise underlies this approach, called personal growth. Effective leaders are deeply in touch with their personal dreams and are confident enough to realize them. They are unafraid of the risks and dilemmas. But most of us ignore these "inner callings," I'm told. So the logic follows that if we can put more managers in touch with their passions and power, we will be able to create more leaders. To achieve these objectives, the personal growth approach relies on intense, "up ending" emotional experiences, adventures that become metaphors for risk-taking. "If you can leap from this cliff, imagine what you can do back at the office," goes the thinking. No blackboard learning for us. Instead, we will learn through our guts.

But can we transfer these lessons back to the office and become better leaders? Well, it is clear that these programs offer opportunities to experience risk-taking, emotional expressiveness, empowerment and vision. And because many of the more "touchy-feely" experiences of the personal growth programs occur on an emotional level, they appear to have a powerful and vivid impact on participants.

When I experienced the cliff jumping adventure, for example, I had just received tenure at my university. I had overcome what in my occupation is considered the most difficult career hurdle, and I now had lifetime security. Surprisingly, I found myself asking, "Is this all there is to life?" Surrounded by security and recalling my vivid experiences with the cliff jump, I discovered a growing desire for more risk. Shortly after, I began to undertake a series of risky, innovative curriculum changes in my courses. By fueling my emotions, the cliff jump facilitated that process.

We also know from studies in adult education that the more levels (emotional, imaginative, cognitive and behavioral) that a learning experience engages, the more powerful the learning will be. Personal growth touches most or all of those levels. And while there is no established research to argue this point, my sense is that learning can be magnified by risk-oriented experiences that challenge us to act in new ways or to see the world vividly with new eyes. That is the case whether such experiences bring success (the new behavior or new world view pays off) or are failures from which we are willing to learn. Most of the other training approaches we will discuss cannot easily offer this dynamic.

Yet while personal growth programs may provide the right amount of emotional fuel to spark managers into new risks and into new visions for their everyday work, there are important limitations.

"If you can leap from this cliff, imagine what you can do back at the office," goes the thinking.

For example, there are few guidelines for taking thoughtful risks back at the office. Participants do not walk away with a neat set of decision rules. Instead, it is like a one-hour pep talk with a motivational speaker. You have a gut impulse to take risks but not a slide rule for measuring them. The assessment to jump from the cliff or not, while nerve-racking, is a simple one. Now compare that with the risk assessment for a million-dollar investment for a new product. The process of determining the actual risk involves a very different set of calculations. I am unable to use any of the decision rules or information from the cliff jump to help me make this decision. I also share my risk on the product decision with my bosses and team, who may be more risk-averse than I am.

There is also the problem of transferring the new stores of emotional fuel back to the office. Like the biblical reference to seeds being cast upon sand or rock or soil, many companies are not fertile ground for nurturing risk-oriented and visionary leaders. A risk-averse boss and bureaucratic inertia can quickly undo what has just been learned. For many companies, leadership training then simply becomes a quick-fix answer to deeper problems. The three-day outside leadership program is a safe alternative to cultivating leadership from within. Organizations, in other words, can show an interest in leadership without taking a deeper responsibility for its successful realization. After all, leaders are a less controllable bunch than managers -- they challenge the status quo, they take risks, they encourage followings. Organizations often feel safer without too many leaders.

The other shortcoming of personal growth is a sometimes faulty premise -- that buried within us all are important values and passions that will help us to lead. This is not always the case. Young managers, for instance, may not have had enough experience to know what their potential passions, talents and interests are. When it comes to learning such things, a week of training cannot substitute for the range and depth of opportunities that years of work experiences can provide. Furthermore, simply getting in touch with interests and talents is no guarantee of leadership. In many cases, an individual's talents may not be related to leading. What happens, for example, when a manager discovers that his or her real talent is in engineering or acting or music? In simple terms, many passions have nothing to do with leadership.

When it comes to important values, we found in our research that the personal growth programs tended to improve participants' personal lives far more than their work lives. In vision exercises, people might confront the trade-offs they have made in dealing with the balance between work and family. They would realize that values about family -- which they care deeply about -- have not been acted on. For example, the lifeboat exercise helped me to see certain important shortcomings in my personal life. Not so paradoxically, as programs promote reflections on important values, concerns turn to private life, rather than to work life. The family allows us to live out our deeper emotional needs, such as giving and receiving love, which the workplace cannot hope to fulfill. How, then, can we assume that getting in touch with one's values will consistently translate into more effective leadership at the office? In short, the medicine of personal growth cannot be seen as a cure-all.


My assistant, Ann Latimer, is checking out the Forum Company's four-day leadership skills workshop in Boston. It is the second day, and the instructor is explaining how to mobilize a work group in a leadership situation. The participants are about to do an exercise called Site-Central (Site is the equivalent of an operating division; Central is headquarters).

The medicine of personal growth should not be seen as a cure-all.

"Three volunteers, please," calls out Diane, the instructor. Mary, Sam and Ann raise their hands. Diane gives them an instruction sheet and ushers the rest of the classmates into the room next door. Ann's group is going to be "Central," and the others will be "Site."

The Site individuals find themselves assigned to stand on specific spaces on a large grid laid out on the carpet with tape like a chessboard. The game requires the participants to reverse their order so that the people on one side of the grid end up on the other side and vice versa. But there is a trick. Everyone has to follow certain strict rules that make it a mind-teaser of sorts (e.g., "Site members may move forward around one person if that person is facing them and if there is an empty space immediately in front of them").

Ann surveys the situation and runs back to Central to show Sam and Mary what to do. After experimenting with the problem on paper for a few minutes, Ann gets props: three juice glasses and three coffee cups (these will represent the Site members). Mary writes identifying letters on them and within minutes Ann's people have figured out what to do. Ann runs back to Site and orders all the people there to move until they are standing where they should. Ann then turns to Diane and declares that the task is done! Diane asks Ann if she is sure. Ann says "yes," but suspects something is wrong.

During the follow-up, Ann realizes that she has just missed the whole point of the exercise--mobilizing Site. The thought of calling on Site members to help solve the problem never occurred to her. The Site people tell Ann's group that they felt bored and angry. They had been given only one instruction: that they should do nothing without the explicit instructions or approval of Central personnel--they never knew what the exercise was all about. Ann is told that her first visit to their room "felt like a typical corporate visit--'they just don't care.'" When Ann explains how her group arrived at the solution, a Site member exclaims, "Well, we felt like cups!"

Ann had assumed that Site knew what the game was all about. She also had assumed that she was racing against the clock; she always puts herself in "fast forward" when there is a problem to be solved. As to the way Ann essentially took over the show--Sam and Mary just watched her--Diane comments that there will be times when Ann cannot solve the problem on her own, so she had better get in the habit of asking for help and working as a team player. The point is well taken.

Ann has just learned about a leadership skill by failing to exercise it effectively. Before the workshop session, she and her teammates were given a set of five behaviors to mobilize others--for example, demonstrating confidence in the ability of others or communicating clearly the results expected from others. The purpose of this exercise was to practice these behaviors--in other words, to build them as real skills. In her race to finish, however, she forgot most of them or else practiced them only with her side of the team, Central. At the conclusion of the exercise, she learned quite powerfully what skills she still needs to develop if she is to lead effectively.

The attractiveness of the skill approach is that it turns leadership into a practical, teachable reality. Program designers identify what they believe to be the key leadership behaviors that can be taught--for example, inspirational-speaking skills. Typically, participants might be presented with a list of four inspirational-speaking behaviors. An exercise follows in which participants devise a three-minute talk that would inspire their staff in a current work situation while employing the four practices. In small groups, they would deliver their talks and be rated by teammates on the leadership skills they are learning.

The success of skill-building depends on how teachable the leadership skills really are. But certain skills are far more complex than we might realize. While communications skills can often be straightforward and teachable, others like strategic vision may not be. For example, we know from studying visionary leaders that vision often has a very long gestation period. Much of it comes from an immersion in one's industry combined with a willingness to challenge the status quo--a paradoxical combination. Timing and luck also play a role. Consequently, visioning is learned largely through important work experiences, not through a day's exposure in a workshop. Learning about the importance of vision and receiving advice on choosing work experiences that might facilitate one's future vision are instead a far more effective use of training than in-class "vision skill-building." Yet many programs actually try to teach what they call visioning. So in evaluating a skill-building course, it is critical to examine how trainable the course skills really are.

Then there is the question of time. To truly learn a skill, an individual needs to spend considerable time with it--studying its basic character, experimenting, getting coached and then making improvements. Just like a sport. Yet most programs cover several major leadership skills in just a few days. So in the morning we might focus on vision and in the afternoon on inspirational speaking. At best we will have a few hours with each skill, and participants will simply get a taste and little real skill-building. It is the nouvelle cuisine of learning. Ever try to master the strokes and nuances of tennis, golf and basketball in four days?

The exercises used in skill-building courses can also be problematic. For example, to practice leading a group, I might be asked to lead five teammates in building toy cars in competition with another team. Like Ann, I will learn several important lessons about leadership, but such simple simulations will fail to capture the reality of my office. Indeed, the less realistic and personally relevant these exercises, the more we found that boredom and apathy set in among participants and therefore little real learning.

Despite these various shortcomings, skill-building is still the most applied and fastest method of learning and implementing new skills. As a result, it will continue to retain its important place in any approach to leadership training.


We are gathered in the classroom at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., and our instructor is describing our task. He tells us that the earth is dying from pollution. Spaceships are being built to carry 1 percent of the world's population to a newly discovered planet called Earth Two, where the survivors will start over.

Our job as individuals is twofold: 1) fill out a résumé form on the fictitious individual we feel would be best qualified to be the leader of Earth Two, using our imagination to make up the characteristics and experiences that would qualify this person to lead; 2) prepare a presentation to convince our classmates that our candidate is the best choice.

After completion, we head off in groups of five into small rooms with two-way mirrors. Watching from behind the mirrors are psychologists who will be measuring us for leadership qualities (e.g., leading the discussion, verbal effectiveness and influence skills). We will have a half hour to persuade our teammates to accept our candidate as the best.

The first five minutes are polite discussion--each of us taking turns to present our candidates. Then suddenly two people start championing their candidates. Our orderly presentations quickly shift into hot debate. I try a logical appeal but in the developing mayhem quickly decide that assertiveness is better. Chaos follows. Suddenly, someone blurts out, "Five minutes left!" The vote begins. We realize if we each vote for our own candidates, no one will come in first. One of our teammates sets the tone by voting for someone else's candidate. Pretty soon it is clear that most of us are voting for two of the candidates. The vote ends. My candidate is ranked second; the one that comes in first was championed by a very persuasive young manager.

Before returning to the classroom, we are asked to rank our teammates for the same leadership qualities that our observers have been ranking us. Now comes the surprise. Two days later, I learn that I am ranked second or third in leadership by my teammates, but ranked first by the psychologists. I begin to question why I am not able to convey a stronger impression to my teammates. Still, I am also a bit shocked that I am seemingly as good a leader as both rankings would indicate.

So why the feedback approach in leadership training? It starts with the correct assumption that most of us cannot fully see ourselves--and so are only partly aware of our leadership styles. The feedback programs assume that many of us already have leadership skills in varying degrees and strengths. We just need a mirror to see those strengths and weaknesses. Once we have seen them, we can act with confidence in our strengths and seek ways to overcome our weaknesses.

In our research for this project, we discovered that feedback can indeed produce very positive outcomes for some participants. For motivated learners, it proved to be very helpful in focusing their efforts on specific developmental issues. For younger managers who received positive feedback, it provided a confidence boost that ultimately enhanced their leadership on the job.

But there are drawbacks. First, feedback programs often overwhelm participants with information. You might receive feedback on 200 dimensions of yourself--your coaching style, conflict style, orientation to innovation, decision-making style, communication style and so on. (The Center for Creative Leadership has developed the most effective means to counter this problem: sitting a participant down for two or three hours with a psychologist who integrates all the feedback learning from the course.)

Despite the overload, participants tend to focus on only one or two areas as their development goals. This happens for two important reasons. The first is relatively obvious: the mind has a difficult time actively working on multiple changes at once. It simplifies the task by focusing on only one or two. Second, some behavioral changes demand a fundamental shift in our psychological makeup. Since the seminar environment is limited in its ability to help us through such major transitions, we gravitate to changes that require little or no fundamental shifts in our character, yet often these are the least important.

For example, I discovered from the feedback I received that I needed to be more effective in conflict management, that I relied too heavily on a coaching leadership style and that I was inconsistent in keeping others informed. Of these three areas, none came as a surprise. However, on my return to the job, I focused on changing only one, keeping my secretary better informed of my schedule. The other two would have required significant changes in my psychological character and in my work environment. Both were the results of years of family dynamics and my occupation; conflict was never managed effectively in my family, and my role as a teacher consistently ingrained the coaching style as most effective with students. My mind, therefore, gravitated to the area of feedback that was psychologically the easiest of the three to implement.

And while most of my fellow participants described a sincere desire to change certain ineffective behaviors when they returned to work, that desire dissipated soon after the program ended. Many reported giving up because of a lack of support and coaching back on the job. Quite a few tied the problem to unsupportive bosses.

Other problems had to do with the focus of feedback. In some leadership courses, much of the feedback has to do with managerial rather than leadership skills--for example, keeping my secretary informed. A clear distinction is often not drawn between the two. Furthermore, priorities may not be outlined; for example, the skills that should be priorities for the development of a young manager's career must be differentiated from the skills a senior executive needs. Unfortunately, most programs do not have the luxury of tailoring their material to specific levels because they must have mass appeal.

But the greatest shortcoming in feedback programs is the lack of an opportunity to shore up weaker skills. So, for example, the person who did poorly on the Earth Two exercise should have had the chance to learn and practice influence skills, but did not. Feedback programs instead tend to move you on to the next area of feedback, with limited chances to practice. While feedback should be an essential element of any program, it needs to be complemented extensively by the other approaches.


As we settle into our chairs in the seminar room of the Leadership Challenge Program, an offering by the Tom Peters Learning Group of Palo Alto, Calif., we begin watching a film about Tom Melohn, the chief executive of a tool and die company. We see him on the factory floor, standing in the middle of a group of managers, announcing "the tool and die freezer award." He asks everyone what they think it is, but no one can guess.

Then he opens a nearby freezer with a tool in it. He proudly states that one of the group's co-workers had a problem fitting two parts together and discovered that by placing them in the freezer the metal would contract, and they would soon fit. Tom grabs the young man's hand in a hearty shake and passes a check to him. Then on to other awards.

At the film's closing, Tom shares his feelings about the day with the film's moderator. Tears welling up in his eyes, he talks about how badly his employees have been treated by previous bosses. It is clear he feels great compassion for his staff. He describes their tremendous potential and his own mission to give them every opportunity he can. Filled with emotion, he halts, unable to continue. The room lights come on.

Before the film began, we had been given a list of the five "best practices" of leadership. Tom Melohn turned out to be our role model for one of them, "Encouraging the Heart." We quickly brainstorm a list of the ways that leaders can "encourage the heart"--in this case, to recognize others and celebrate accomplishments. From our analysis of the film, we conclude that it is best done by 1) setting high standards, 2) catching people doing things right, 3) being creative with rewards, 4) recognizing others in public and 5) personalizing rewards. We now have a conceptual map of the essential qualities of a brand of leadership. You will notice that we have stayed in our heads to do this exercise--we have not practiced "encouraging the heart" or received feedback on our own ability or soul-searched for it on a personal level. Sometime later, however, we will have a chance to practice "encouraging the heart" with our fellow participants. (Though oriented by the conceptual approach, the Leadership Challenge has a reasonable blend of the four approaches.)

This more analytical approach to training has long been the domain of M.B.A. and university executive programs. Theory-oriented by nature, business school programs use the traditional tools of conceptual learning--case studies, lectures, films and discussions--to explain leadership to students and managers. They often rely on a contrast to be most effective--with leadership, the contrast is with managership. We might learn that while leaders have strategic visions to guide their organizations, managers instead use budgets and two-year plans.

The advantage of the conceptual awareness approach is that it helps us to understand intellectually that there are important behaviors which distinguish leaders from managers. In addition, if we have limited time, it is a very realistic approach. After all, many leadership skills are very complex and take significant time to train. So if we are short on time, the best we can do is to focus a manager's attention on some of the most important skill areas. The hope is that the manager will then seek out work experiences to foster those skills. If we do a good job, we might also stimulate enthusiasm for leading.

But generally speaking, concepts about leadership are not enough. Much of the criticism of business schools today is that they teach ideas, not real skills. As adult learners, we need exercises, experiences and coaches to turn concepts into leadership abilities. Understanding something intellectually often has little to do with being able to do it. If it did, we would see many more Martin Luther Kings and Jack Welches since most of us have studied these leaders in school.

So we can think of conceptual learning as only a first step. It is a critical one since we need models to make sense of reality and to focus our attention on which skills we need to acquire. But then the other training approaches are necessary to turn the ideas in our brains into action by our hearts and hands.



By now, you are beginning to ask: "O.K., so how do I find the best program for my organization given all these distinctions?" The first step is to pose a series of critical questions about any program you might be considering:

  1. What is the model of leadership that is being used? Is it simple and clear? Does it reflect the most current thinking and research on the topic? Will it suit the future needs of my organization?

  2. Do all the classroom sessions, exercise and feedback questionnaires focus and build on this model?

  3. What are the principal methods of instruction? Look for evidence of all four approaches. How realistic and transferable are the simulations of leadership that are used?

  4. Can participants immediately apply their learning to their own jobs? Are there company-related action learning projects? Can the program be customized to my company and industry?

  5. What mechanisms are provided to help my managers with their new skills once they are back on the job?

After asking these questions, you may well conclude that the best answer is to design your own program, perhaps in consultation with several training organizations. Consider the following broad points as guideposts. And see the end of this article for more specific advice.

1. Bring Together All Four Approaches
You have probably realized by now that most programs have a slant. Each approach makes certain assumptions about how we learn leadership, and these in turn shape the learning methods they choose. This bias cannot be helped because of essential differences in the program designers' backgrounds. But ultimately, a single approach is too narrow. To design learning experiences that work, leadership training will have to incorporate more effectively all four approaches into a single program.

We will need a conceptual part to insure a clear mode of leadership for participants to follow in their heads. Skill-building to get everyone practicing leadership with their "arms and feet." Feedback to hone an awareness of where people are weak and need more experience as leaders and where they are strong and can act with confidence. Finally, personal growth to mobilize hearts and guts and to unfreeze our imagination and encourage us to take on new challenges and risks.

2. Start With Support from the Top
In companies where leadership training is having an impact, senior management is not only supportive but involved. They make it a part of their company's strategy and are often the first participants in any program. They may even teach in the program.

Levi Strauss is one such company. It has taken leadership training very seriously -- involving thousands of managers over the last several years. The process began in the late 1980's with the development of Levi Strauss & Company's Mission and Aspirations Statement, a major initiative to define the shared values that would guide both management and the work force. You can call it their vision.

Of the key values, leadership was among the critical ones. When the chief executive, Robert D. Haas, and his management team set out to integrate these values into the organization, it was assumed that formulating the Aspirations Statement and then communicating it would be enough to change the organization. But it soon became clear that there were few if any tangible results. In the spring of 1989, the company initiated a leadership training program to teach employees how to fulfill the aspirations as well as to gain widespread commitment to them.

"The first and most important piece of the process is senior management," said Sue Thompson, director of Human Resource Development at the company. "The initial step into a process like this is a leap of faith. If the C.E.O. is not committed, there is no hope of it succeeding."

Senior management must also walk the talk. At one telecommunications company, the president initiated a leadership training program for his middle managers. One of the key practices emphasized was quality service to the customer. Shortly after the program was initiated, the president reorganized the two departments that dealt directly with the customer. The reorganization actually worsened service but made for certain internal efficiencies and cost savings. Very quickly, interest and enthusiasm waned for the training program. The moral is clear. Senior management has to be prepared to practice visibly the techniques being taught in the classroom and to make investments that affirm their commitment.

3. Go Beyond the "One Shot" Program
Plato advocated a leadership program that took a lifetime, but we don't have that luxury. And while Plato's program sits at one extreme of the time investment spectrum, most leadership training programs sit at the other. The "one shot" three-day program cannot miraculously transform your managers into leaders. At best, it will create an awareness of what leadership is, but not much more. We must realize that leadership training needs to involve numerous initiatives that occur over the long term.

So break away from the idea that training comes in one-time courses. Instead, courses need to be designed in modules of pairs or threes -- one week of training followed by a six-month break, then another week of training followed by another break, and so on. In the first session, participants learn basic leadership skills and then prepare action plans to implement over the coming months. These action projects translate their learning into concrete, on-the-job leadership initiatives. A follow-up course is needed in six months. This serves as an opportunity to review progress, make modifications for the future and target specific skills requiring further development.

This approach is important because it fosters greater reflection and discipline among participants. They feel more accountable for their learning -- they must report their progress some six months later. Knowing that their progress will be scrutinized encourages trainees to be more realistic about their plans.

To succeed longer term, it is important to stagger programs over a manager's career at key transition points. For example, the General Electric Company stages its leadership training programs at critical career transitions where the scale and complexity of a manager's job demand new leadership skills. Leading a unit on the manufacturing floor is a less complex challenge than leading an entire plant. When managers make that transition, they go off to learn about a new set of leadership issues concerning manufacturing strategy, customer relations, leading large numbers of people, inventory control and so on.

4. Bring On the Coaches
Coaches are critical to keeping our learning alive and helping us stay on track. Most bosses, however, do not have the time to help, or simply do not understand what people have been learning. So the last coaching tends to occur in the classroom. There are two solutions to this problem. One is to send the boss to the course beforehand. The second is to have the training department or the training vendor do the coaching after the course ends.

Coaches are critical to keeping our learning alive and helping us stay on track.

The system developed by the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro for its LeaderLab program is one solution using the training organization itself. The role of the center's full-time advisers is to assist program participants during the training and afterward. Contact begins a month before the program starts with a telephone call. During the program, participants meet with their advisers to discuss concrete plans and skill development.

In LeaderLab, there is a three-month break between the two course sessions, during which the adviser maintains a monthly telephone link to troubleshoot in areas where little progress appears to have been made. Heightening the effectiveness of these telephone contacts are daily learning journals that are kept by each participant--the contents of which are sent to the adviser before each call. This helps the adviser to see the daily issues that the participants are facing. It also forces trainees to explore their situations in far greater depth. The telephone link continues for two months after the program's last session.

Further support at LeaderLab comes in the form of change partners. There are two kinds: in-course and back-home. In-course partners are teams of three fellow participants who work together throughout the program. They must learn about each other and help one another strategize and then provide support by telephone when the program ends. The back-home partners are three or four individuals at the workplace who can assist the participants as they try to improve their leadership situation.

5. Create a Constellation of Leadership Development Systems
When Levi Strauss started its leadership training program, it learned a powerful lesson. You could train values but not necessarily produce changes in behavior. An initial survey of 2,673 people at corporate headquarters showed that while employees understood and supported the company's list of aspirations, they felt uncertain about whether other managers were walking the talk.

Training is a critical element, but only one, for creating leaders.

A next step was needed. The focus turned to mechanisms that would reinforce and reward the practices outlined in the training programs. Task forces were formed to see how the practices could be encouraged and identify barriers that got in the way. The company performance appraisal was altered to tie salary increases to the demonstration of leadership behavior. Programs were instituted in plants to share productivity improvement gains with employees implementing initiatives. These and other support systems must be installed simultaneously with any training efforts.

Ultimately, the companies that do the best job at creating leaders are founded upon a culture that values and rewards leadership. For them, training is a critical element, but only one of many mechanisms. Ideally, a company must support leadership development through challenging job assignments, outstanding bosses, effective mentoring, financial and promotion rewards, performance feedback, task force assignment and on-the-job training. Together, these mechanisms create the experiences and rewards that are needed to develop leadership.

6. Go for Critical Mass
The more managers you involve in leadership training, the more likely real results will materialize. That is because such an approach insures a mindset throughout the company about what leadership really is. This critical mass ultimately will form a broad-based support system for future leadership initiatives.

And do not start leadership training at the bottom and work up. The chief executive and the senior team need to be the first ones in any program, which can then cascade downward.

7. Remember to Be Patient
Leadership development is not an inexpensive process in terms of time and money. The problem, understandably, is that most corporations are reluctant to make sizable investments in something with such uncertain outcomes. We want it, but we want proof before we invest. But with leadership training--unlike quality control, for example--there are few immediate ways to quantify the investment. That makes an expectation of "delayed gratification" essential in this context. In other words, it is important to be patient.

"One gets a great sense of the starts and stops of these processes, of their difficulty, of their magnitude, of the down days, of the persistence required," said Peter Thigpen, senior vice president of operations at Levi Strauss, of his company's experience. "In a way, I think the biggest risk we face is that we will lose patience."

Indeed, there are no quick or magic solutions in leadership development; rather, dogged persistence and commitment are what it takes.

So do not approach leadership training halfheartedly. Your actions will only raise unfulfillable expectations. And when they are not met, any initiatives will quickly be discredited.

And by the way, I forgot to mention that while Plato insisted that he needed 50 years to develop a leader, Aristotle said he could do it in two. His pupil was Alexander the Great.


Our understanding of leadership has come a long way over the last decade. Earlier conceptions of leadership were little more than descriptions of good managership. But the emphasis has changed and radically so. Because of the enormous competitive pressures felt by most organizations, we now think of leaders as change masters. As a result, leadership training has shifted toward teaching managers and executives how to anticipate what is on their industry horizon and how to mobilize their organization to shape the future. Any training program that fails to place an emphasis on this dynamic of change is probably antiquated. Below is a list of some of the essential new leadership skills that effective training programs should address:

Shaping Strategic Vision

  • Developing a future orientation

  • Challenging the status quo

  • Mastering future industry trends and demographics

  • Conceptualizing strategic initiatives into a vision

Aligning the Organization

  • Communicating strategic vision

  • Role-modeling

  • Developing a leadership philosophy and value set

  • Leading organizational change

  • Directing decentralized organizations

  • Persuasion

Mobilizing the Troops

  • Trust-building

  • Empowerment

  • Inspirational speaking skills

  • Harnessing human resources systems

  • Building effective teams


The ideal program would start off with a week-long introduction to the essentials of effective leadership. It would be designed around a single model of leadership that incorporated the future needs of the participant's organization. Ideally, a time horizon of the coming decade would be chosen simply because many participants may not find themselves in leadership positions for another 5 to 10 years.

The program would begin with a conceptual overview of the leadership model. Then would come participant feedback. Prior to the program, each participant would have had bosses, peers and subordinates fill out a feedback questionnaire designed to measure the leadership behaviors being taught in the course. This would enable participants to learn early on how they stacked up on the course's leadership dimensions.

In the days that follow, skill-building exercises based on the more trainable of the leadership competencies would be employed, with each exercise followed by feedback. Interspersed would be personal growth exercises tailored to work-related experiences and to group team-building.

To help the participants think about vision, a demographer and several industry futurists would be involved. For alignment, there would be exercises to teach effective communication of vision and implementation plans. For mobilizing skills, there would be numerous experiential exercises using the participants themselves to teach motivational and team-building techniques. Halfway through the week, each participant would begin outlining an on-the-job leadership development initiative (involving organizational change) to be implemented over the coming months. An agenda for addressing less effective leadership skills based on the surveys would also be set.

After the week-long session, participants would go back to work for six months. Then they would return for a follow-up training session lasting four days. This session would focus more deeply on organizational change and developing a vision -- in other words, a chance to revisit the more complex leadership skills. There would be another round of feedback from the participant's organization that would benchmark the degree of progress made on the various leadership dimensions. This would also be the time for individual counseling from course instructors and peers on the leadership initiatives.

Another six to nine months would pass. Then a third session would be held. This would be used to assess each participant's leadership effectiveness with the chosen initiative over the long term. This would also be a time for the overall assessment of lessons learned--both successes and failures. A final feedback survey would be presented to again benchmark progress on the leadership dimensions. Further classroom work would be devoted to a more in-depth analysis of future industry trends, on revising individual visions and on more sophisticated techniques of organizational change, communications and motivation. There would be additional opportunities for members of the group to learn from one another's leadership lessons.

In the ideal case, a company's leadership development program would be designed around different levels of the organization to reflect the leadership issues unique to each level. Upon promotion to another level, a manager would then enter a new cycle of leadership development programs. In all cases, these training exercises would be complemented by human resources systems (e.g. performance appraisals, job assignments, succession planning) that rewarded and promoted leadership.

Illustrations by Diana Minisci Appleton

Reprint No. 96107

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