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Why leadership training doesn’t work


Having effective and productive leaders are imperative for an organisation’s success. But, as Judith Germain highlights, leadership training has historically made several common mistakes.

When the business environment becomes more challenging companies tend to concentrate on hard measures such as reducing costs, increasing profits and downsizing - often ignoring the sometimes intangible measures such as management’s ability to be successful leaders, as a possible solution to how a business could weather the storm. This can be a flawed approach and can be extremely detrimental to the health of the business.

Leadership development: a short term fix?

Having effective and productive leaders is imperative to an organisation’s success and ability to be agile in competitive and changing environments. This is often the reason that many HR departments insist that leadership training is the way forward to rectify the deficiencies in an organisation’s capability. When the HR department advises the management team that they need leadership training this is often met with derision and a reluctance to attend, or worse still if they do attend, assessment following the training shows that in the mid to long-term there is little to no improvement in leadership competence.

"It is the easiest thing to teach a leadership technique, much harder to teach the behavioural competencies that are required to lead."

This has a long-term adverse effect on the business and the ability of employees to reach their potential and add value to the business. Senior management buying in to the training intervention is essential in ensuring that it stands more than a fair chance of being accepted and embedded into the organisation.

Some of the ways that HR can embarrass itself when sponsoring leadership training include:

  • Buying off-the-shelf training not aligned to the business
  • Leadership training that concentrates on techniques not business
  • Over-reliance on one type of learning
  • Using a trainer that lacks credibility
  • Ignoring social intelligence as a key competency

Aren't I good enough already?

One of the reasons that most managers refuse to attend leadership training is because they do not believe that it is relevant to their needs and they feel that after many years of managing people they are already effective and proficient managers. This perception is probably backed up by years of good performance reviews (where leadership ability/competency has never been assessed) and a reward structure that encourages poor leadership and a reliance on task completion over leadership ability.

It can be tempting to just buy in training that has not been aligned to the business – assuming that all leadership training is the same. It is imperative that you assess with the supplier exactly what you need to achieve and how the training can support the business objectives. The provider should also understand the culture of the business and ensure that the training embeds the desired culture and change objectives that you feel is necessary. Determination on whether coaching for junior members of the team or mentoring for more senior members will be more effective than a training course should be considered.

Adding coaching & mentoring to the mix

It may be necessary to supplement the training with coaching or mentoring depending on the need of the business. A major flaw in many leadership training programmes is that they concentrate on leadership techniques without considering how it relates to good business practice. For example, is the ability to understand situational leadership or action-centred leadership the training course or is the training course how you can apply situational leadership etc to your business day? It is a subtle although essential distinction and one that will make an important difference in whether there will be any behavioural change or desired performance improvement.

Emotional intelligence

Some trainers prefer to train in the learning style that is more comfortable for them rather than considering the learning styles of the delegates. This can lead to training courses that are biased and only suitable for a proportion of the management cadre. For example, lots of activities like role play for those that prefer to ‘get stuck in’ or case studies that like to problem solve. Training that relies on only one or two methods of learning will ultimately fail its objectives.

Training can ‘die a death’ if the trainer is not considered credible by the trainees. This often means that the trainer needs to have a wealth of relevant experience and the ability to understand not only leadership but business as well. Over reliance on one discipline (HR or business) will leave a training course ‘off balance’ and ineffective. I see social intelligence as the ability of taking emotional intelligence and applying it to social situations. It concerns itself with how you interact with others and how you assess the situations/environments around you, to achieve a win/win solution or best agreed alternative solution.

"Training can ‘die a death’ if the trainer is not considered credible by the trainees. This often means that the trainer needs to have a wealth of relevant experience and the ability to understand not only leadership but business as well."

Social intelligence

Social intelligence is also about how you respond to the different situations and environments that you find yourself in. This is the essence of leadership and one that is often missed by leadership trainers! It is the easiest thing to teach a leadership technique, much harder to teach the behavioural competencies that are required to lead.

To ensure that your leadership training course works you must consider the following: What do you wish to achieve? Is the training course biased in how it expects people to learn or behave? Is it tailored to my business? What else is being taught other than leadership technique? How credible is the trainer and do they understand not only the ‘HR’ but ‘business’ as well?

Judith Germain is the managing director of Dynamic Transitions, a leadership company specialising in working with Troublesome Talent and improving leadership performance within organisations. Judith provides strategic mentoring for senior executives and business leaders and delivers innovative leadership programmes, leadership consultancy, training, coaching and mentoring to corporate clients. For more information visit or email [email protected]

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