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Rethinking Leadership Development

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It is not difficult to convince executives about the importance of leadership. Last year, American corporations spent about $12 billion on leadership development.

But what was the effect of all that money on actual leadership growth?

Accenture's "High Performance Workforce Survey" found that while 65% of executive respondents thought leadership development was very important, only 8% thought their company was good at it. Many other surveys present a similar story.

But forget the surveys. What do you think? When your manager or colleagues finish their leadership program, do they demonstrate sustained improvements? Unless their post-program behavior changes, unless they do something differently, there is no return on investment. Far too often, that is the case.

One might expect that with today's exponential acceleration of leadership technologies, we would see improvements. But progress is not apparent. The reason is that today's leadership development paradigm is fundamentally broken.

Today's paradigm is based on the assumption that all leaders in a given company must demonstrate excellence on a defined set of leadership competencies. The objective of leadership development is to teach leaders to demonstrate those competencies.


But the paradigm doesn't work. Here are four reasons why:

Many competencies cannot be improved. Competencies are a mixed bag. Some are skills (e.g., strategic thinking), some are personality traits (e.g., drive to achieve), some are knowledge (e.g., market insight), and some are talent (e.g., good judgment). Skills and knowledge can be improved, but personality traits and talent cannot. We are who we are. No "Drive to Achieve" class is going to change that.

Competency models are unfocused. Abbott Laboratories (ABT) uses 24 competencies in its leadership model. The U.S. Department of Labor's management competency model uses 60 competencies. "You, too, can be a great leader by focusing on these 60 competencies ..." Ridiculous.

Competency models assume renaissance leadership. Competency models encourage assessors to zero in on poorly demonstrated competencies. That's wrong. A successful leadership team needs all leadership competencies, but successful leaders do not.

Peter Drucker said, "...[W]e are not going to breed a new race of supermen ... what seems to be wanted is universal genius, and universal genius has always been in short supply." If a leader is world-class in operational excellence but poor in strategic thinking, he/she must add an outstanding strategic thinker to the leadership team.

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