Deloitte has identified “leadership development” as a major challenge for HR leaders in 2015. However, the research group observes that HR leaders do not have the capability to meet this challenge. As I reported in my last post, Deloitte asked “…more than 3,300 business and HR leaders from 106 countries” to rate the importance of ten trends and their readiness to deal with these trends. From this study, they conclude:

Organizations around the world are struggling to strengthen their leadership pipelines, yet over the past year businesses fell further behind, particularly in their ability to develop Millennial leaders.

I don’t think that organizations are going to close this leadership gap until they confront four false assumptions about learning that are deeply embedded in their cultures.

  1. Once is enough – This is the belief that people can learn something as complex and ego threatening as leadership the first time they are exposed to the material. Sue Fry and David Grebow ask in their blog post, “Would anyone consider handing a Bach score and a cello to someone who played a little guitar and expect him to master it after two hour-long seminars and a demonstration video?” I don’t think so. Yet this is what we do to aspiring leaders. We put them through intense one-shot programs and expect them to become high performers.
  2. Experience is the best teacher - If that were true, I should be playing professional golf. Just because you are in a leadership role doesn’t mean you are an effective leader. Experience alone is not how we learn; we learn from reflecting on that experience, sharing those reflections with others (coaches, mentors, experts, etc.) and then applying that new found learning.
  3. Paint by numbers - It seems so simple: just follow the ten steps, nine principles, seven habits, six ways, or five truths. Unfortunately, the art of leadership can’t be reduced to a list of do’s and don’ts. To be a leader you need to do the hard work of practicing leading, getting feedback, and practicing more.
  4. Learn by osmosis - This is the belief that you can learn about leadership by being with other leaders. So we send high-potential leaders to a three-day meeting with other high-potential leaders in Las Vegas, or we have aspiring leaders meet together once a month to discuss leadership for a couple of hours, or we have them visit other organizations and interview their leaders. Each of these activities has value and might be fun for the participants, but if that’s all you do, you won’t develop leaders. This is not the way people develop new competencies.

As evidenced in the Deloitte study, the old models of developing leaders are not closing the gap between the current quality of leadership and the kind of leadership needed in high performing organizations. However, this gap can’t be closed until organizational leaders change their beliefs about training, learning, and performance improvement. The four assumptions described above are sustaining a “training culture” in organizations at a time when what is needed is a “learning culture”.