Does Your Organization Implement All Three of These Ideas in Developing Leaders?

Even as a guy who loves to read and write about the topic of leadership development, I have some real empathetic understanding for those who do not think the investment in leaders is worth the return on the investment (ROI). While I do not totally agree, I am open to listening to their perspective.

Barbara Kellerman, leadership guru out of Harvard University, has entered into the discussion on the value of leadership development. In her new book, Professionalizing Leadership., she takes issue with the leadership development industry because of the message that it sends; “Take my course, or come to my workshop, or take my executive program, and you too can learn to be a leader.” Kellerman’s main beef with the leadership development industry is that other professions take the task of learning or mastering a field and a particular set of skills much more seriously and much more thoroughly. The main concern as I understand Kellerman’s point is that leadership development is packaged as an event rather than a discipline.

I agree with this summation.


Those of us in leadership development have to get away from positioning our value proposition as an event and start thinking more about how we approach leadership as a life long discipline.

For example, a training course in personality or emotional intelligence can give a leader a self-awareness tool. Nothing more. It is up to the leader to take this information and become a student of how it informs their understanding and approach to the practice of leadership.  

If you are going to lead, you can not just wake up and say “Today I think I will try to instill some vision into the group I am with.” Leadership is a discipline, just like chemistry, finance, or project management. According to Donald Schon in his book The Reflective Practitioner, these professions are “essential to the very functioning of our society.”

No person in any organization can be a leader without some other set of skills. If you want to be a sales leader, then you have to become skillful at sales and at leadership. If you want to be a leader in finance, then you must learn both disciplines, leadership and finance.

Interestingly, what I find in most organizations is that we take those who are most successful in a functional discipline, like finance, and once they show proficiency and skill at financial reporting and the inner workings of EBITA then the discussion turns to giving that person a team to lead. Most often, there is no thought of what the leadership experience or knowledge or education of that person is.

The mistake that is made is in the thinking that because this person has excelled in a particular skill, or because they were number one in their class at an Ivy League School, they must be a leader.

While I am not saying it is impossible for this person who has proven mastery of a skill to be a leader, the mistake is one Robert Sternberg ,in his chapter on foolishness in The Handbook of Wisdom, calls “fallacies of relevance.”

These errors are committed when the premise of an argument has no bearing on its conclusion. For example, just because Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player to ever play the sport does not mean he can coach. 

Sternberg would call this all too common behavior in organizations: foolishness. It means that intelligence is no protection agains bad decisions. 

Let’s say you had an opening in your organization for a financial analyst. A resume comes across your desk for a person  with no education in finance, no knowledge of terms or how financial data fits together, and zero experience in finance. Would you hire this person for your opening and expect them to meet organizational expectations?

No, of course you wouldn’t!

You would be looking for resumes of people who went to school for a number of years to learn the academic ins and outs of finance, then got a job in the field, had some people in an organization show them the ropes, maybe even was assigned a mentor. At the very least, they had the ability to learn from the “school of hard knocks” about what works and what doesn’t work.

Let’s think of it another way. Would you ever hire someone for a finance role who was an organizational leadership major? Let them lead the team and say, “No worries, they will just learn the finance piece.” Outside of an introductory sales or administrative role, I have never heard of this happening!

The Reason for Wrong Thinking In Leadership Development

There are three things I believe those who want to be effective organizational leaders need to focus on when making decisions about who is in a leadership role in an organization:

  1. Leadership Education.

    Education is about gathering general knowledge as part of facilitating the learning process. It comprises important elements such as grounded theory, core values, accepted beliefs, socially acceptable habits, and proven skills.  A leader should know the difference between transactional and servant leadership and how followers react to each. Basic education is a necessity prior to someone going into training. If you try to train someone without some knowledge they may be able to learn the skill, but will not be able to transfer that learning to complex situations that arise.

  2. Leadership Training.

    Training is about acquiring skills and behaviors with the goal of improving performance. A leader might go to a training class to learn about personality types and be trained in how to use personality to improve communication. Without some education on what personality theory is, the leader is armed with a tool they do not understand and, therefore, cannot use to the benefit of themselves or the organization.

  3. Leadership Development.

    Leadership Development is the ongoing use of leadership education and training that is building and expanding the persons capacity to lead. This idea of development starts with the individual and then must expand to the broader organization to ensure healthy organizational growth.

These three very distinct aspects of leadership are all critical to growing leaders in organizations.

Back to the “Is it worth It” Question

While ROI is pretty easy to calculate on an investment like a stock, the calculation gets messy when we start to try and calculate the complexity of human behavior.

While many have offered formulas, the deterministic approach often leaves readers scratching their heads as a small investment in leadership development ends up showing 600% returns. It is so unbelievable that most people just dismiss the numbers out of hand. 

Maybe instead of being so deterministically calculating we ought to rely on another mathematic discipline to determine value of developing our leaders; statistics. More specifically, probability. 

What are the chances that without investing fully in developing leaders that our business will succeed? Before you start developing assumptions to generate your answer, why don’t we turn to logic to answer the question for us?

What are the chances that without investing in the education, training, and development of our finance department that our business will succeed?

I think you have your answer.