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Is it possible for leadership development to do more harm than good?

One size does not fit all

We know that one-size leadership development does not fit all. So why do some organisations still insist on buying off-the-shelf programmes that are cast as a panacea for leadership in every organisation?

Our experience is that sometimes identifying specific outcomes and developing an intervention that fits an organisation’s specific requirements seems just too hard a process for that organisation to go through. On occasions, it feels like an organisation would rather go with something that isn’t quite going to work than to dig under the skin of the real challenges and build something bespoke.

This is one of the many reasons we are so grateful for the clients we do work with. They are willing to go through the process with us and reap the rewards.

Leadership development can make things worse for those that don’t create bespoke programmes, but instead go for the one size fits all approach.

Certification over lasting change

We work with a client who previously engaged with one of the big, blue-ribbon business schools. Their investment in their (off-the-shelf) programme was significant. It certainly cost them more for that partnership than it does to work with us.

Yet the results were underwhelming. It seemed like that process and the certification of working with that business school was given higher priority than the participants’ actual learning journey.

This is my experience too. I participated in a certified leadership development programme, and while I had some insights, the return on investment wasn’t great.

I am not anti-certification, but when developing leaders, it should result from them participating in the learning journey rather than being the focus of the activities.

When programmes are created to certify leaders rather than to focus on leadership development, they can make things worse.

Case studies and roleplays over projects and practice

We never do roleplay in our training. Ever. Period. Why? Because roleplay doesn’t aid learning transfer.

We very rarely use case studies in our interventions. Instead, participants bring their own challenges and opportunities to the programmes and apply their new learning and insights to them.

At every opportunity, we integrate real strategic projects into the programmes. This gives a fantastic laboratory to experiment with new skills, approaches and methodologies. It also allows us to build programmes that add immediate value back to our clients.

When programmes are filled with roleplay and case studies, rather than activities that aid the integration and transfer of learning, they can do more harm than good.

Leadership development almost always does more good than harm

Despite the position that the article I referenced took, leadership development programmes that are designed with any degree of care will almost always benefit the organisation in the long run, even if the starting point is to create dissonance, which results in future activity.

I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes:

All boats rise with the tide

In this case, the tide is increasing skill and awareness, and a behavioural change in how we lead others. In turn, the constituents of our organisation begin to lead their people better and expect more from their fellow leaders.

In this shift come the green shoots of positive strategic and cultural change.

To find out more about how we craft our bespoke leadership development interventions, email


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