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, "... We 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.

One-size-fits-all competencies. The role of clerical pool supervisor is dramatically different from the role of a sales manager. Yet, they both attend the same leadership development class. The only way to make such classes relevant is to deliver high-level, theoretical instruction. Program organizers hope participants will be able to apply the theories on their job. But hope is not an effective strategy.

Time to Change the Paradigm

If you want to improve leadership performance, teach people how to succeed in their job. Teaching a department manager how to create an effective strategic plan is far more realistic than teaching "good judgment." Buy leaders, build managers.

Buy leaders. Accomplished skiers can easily identify which skiers began skiing in childhood and which started as adults. Early experience matters. Hire people with successful leadership experience from a young age. Buy intelligence, personality and leadership.

This is not to imply that leadership growth ceases during adulthood, but trying to teach an adult with little experience to become a professional leader is a waste of time. Leadership grows in small drops through experience; it cannot be improved through a class.

Build managers. Dean Walsh of Sullivan-Walsh Consulting once told me, "It is impractical, if not impossible, to teach a person whom to be. But it is very practical to teach a person what to do."

A college basketball coach selects for competencies such as confidence, passion and athletic ability. He develops these competencies slowly over time. Bu, he spends his time teaching players how to perform their positions. For a point guard: how to bring in the ball; how to call a play; and how to transition to defense. These are the fundamentals. He teaches them over and over again.

The same is true for developing corporate leaders. Teach sales managers to be sales managers: how to conduct a motivating pipeline review, how to forecast and how to coach underperformers.

If you are teaching how to perform a management job, you are teaching leadership. But you are teaching it in a practical context. A "motivating pipeline review," "coaching underperformers;" that's leadership right? Doesn't that make more sense than trying to teach a competency like "passion for the business"?

Competencies are very useful when selecting or transferring employees. They can also be useful in long-term development. But they are not effective for making on-the-job leadership improvements.

If you want to improve leadership, teach managers how to perform their current role. By building successful managers you will be developing great leaders.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Hall is managing director of Human Capital Systems (, a firm that designs systems for improving workforce performance. He is also an instructor in Duke Corporate Education's teaching network and author of The New Human Capital Strategy. Hall was formerly a senior vice president at ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam and IBM Asia-Pacific's executive in charge of executive leadership and organization effectiveness. During his tenure, IBM was twice ranked No. 1 in the world in Hewitt/Chief Executive magazine's "Top Company for Leaders." Hall completed his Ph.D in industrial-organizational psychology at Tulane University, with a dissertation on people management practices of Japanese corporations.

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