Stop Training Your Leaders!

As a business owner who makes a living partly from training leaders, I give myself full permission to write this article and accept any consequences as a result of businesses changing the way they look at developing their leaders!

A colossal, money-making area of training is leadership. If I had one Dirham for every time I have read or heard, ‘”what’s the difference between a manager and a leader?’’ I would be lying on my private island writing this and not in my office.

At an estimated industry value of US$60 Billion, there have been over 85,000 leadership books published in the last forty years. Here are some listings numbers when you search on Google: 142,000,000 for leadership, 3,500,000 for leadership training, 21,300,000 for leadership training courses, 13,100,000 for leadership consulting firms and 1,600,000 for leadership consultants.

Why then, with such an array of resources available and with businesses seemingly willing to allocate substantial budgets to resolve the issue, is developing leaders still such an ambiguous problem? The issues emanate from the mindset of the company looking to ‘resolve their leadership problem’ and often stumble across some of these common pitfalls:

– Companies fail to realise that leadership differs from one organisation to another.

– Companies classify leadership as a ‘problem’.

– Companies hire people or buy programs ‘off the shelf’ to address leadership issues.

– Selected individuals go through the process of ‘learning leadership’.

– These people go back into organizations and are measured on exactly the same things they were measured on BEFORE the training on leadership. In other words, we don’t measure leadership per se, but measure everything else around it: profits, losses, costs, quality, errors, etc

A lot of traditional leadership training focuses on traits. Notably, Thomas Carlyle and Francis Galton were the first to publish leadership trait research back in the 1800’s. Naturally, there has since been a veil of doubt cast over their initial suppositions, initially by Ralph Stogdill who wrote a paper in 1948 (Personal Factors Associated with Leadership: a Survey of the Literature, Journal of Psychology) summarising that the typical leadership traits list was so large and variable, that it cannot, therefore, be conclusive.

Exactly my warning! There is not one single mould or definitive set of guidelines to characterise a successful leader, yet many try to portray one, either via traits lists, training theories, models or various hyped programs.

So, if we don’t train leaders and we can’t identify them from a list, how do we develop them?

1. We need to take our heads out of a book and look at our organizational needs. Ask yourself, “Is the same leader going to be successful in a large bureaucratic American-run organization as they are in a local Middle Eastern family run group?” Of course not!

2. We do need to consider the traits of a potential leader, but not solely rely on them. Is there a dovetail fit with your organization? We need to stop using static yes/no psychometric tools and look at the development and behavioural tools on the market.

3. We need to focus on the correct development program within our organisation and strive for inspiring talent management thinking.

4. We need to consider what type of employees we have. What inspires them to ‘’follow’’ someone?

5. We should all create more metrics for our leaders that have more to do with the person than the output those people are responsible for.

6. Add our regional challenges on top of this, and we need to think deeper.

We, as usual, have the biggest challenges in this region, yet I see very few organizations addressing this in leadership. How many different cultures does a leader have to deal with in the Middle East? How many varying age groups? We have a unique mix of multi-generational, culture, behavioural and hierarchical issues.

Finally, a cautionary word! Most organizations check that a person is culturally aware before hiring them, but what exactly does that mean? Ask yourself what your opinion is on leaders from these countries: UK? Lebanon? India? UAE?

I guarantee that you have already formed a sub-conscious opinion. Everyone has a set of implicit assumptions about what a ‘good’ leader looks like, sounds like and acts like. In academic literature these assumptions are called ‘Implicit Leadership Theories’ (ILT). Often, these mental models or ILTs are developed in childhood. They tend to be culturally biased, carrying the beliefs and assumptions of a particular culture.

Mental models of leadership are also influenced by organizational culture. Over time, people in the same workplace adopt similar beliefs about the nature of an effective leader. So what happens when a leader does not fit the mental leadership model of their followers? Can they be effective leaders? Or do they need to adjust in order to fit with the demands of their followers? This suggests that leaders need to be aware of their own ILT and be sensitive to the ILTs of their followers.

In other words, explicit discussions need to take place between leaders and followers about what stage of development the organization is at. Do you need more technical process leaders or the next level of motivational leaders?

In summary, we need to stop classroom training, copious theories and models and look deeper. We need to get back into the box we are constantly told to get out of because the answers are in the organisation and we need to develop them from within!

Paula Jane Cox is a partner for Lumina Learning in the Middle East. She has over 18 years experience in consulting with leaders and decision-makers to improve business effectiveness, the bottom line and engaging employees on a global scale. Currently residing in the UAE.