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  • Writer's pictureEdwin and George

Here’s why you can’t train leadership

EGM On A Mission: Let’s Build Better Companies

Every book dedicated to leadership espouses the virtues of consistency, predictability and fairness as the hallmarks of great leaders. However, my decade long study of truly exceptional leaders has revealed the opposite to be true.

  • We are not the rational, logical and analytical creatures we presume ourselves to be.

  • We are emotional, illogical and driven by a multitude of impulses, desires and experiences.

  • In light of this a one-size fits all approach to leadership is deeply inadequate for inspiring passion and action among any group of people. (Steven Bartlett, ‘The Diary of a CEO.’)

Are you an accidental manager?

  • Someone who has moved up the corporate hierarchy who has never received leadership training?

If so, you’re in good company.

According to a study last month in ‘The Conversation,’ a staggering 82 per cent of newly appointed leaders fall into this category.

  • This is incredible given that leadership training is now a multibillion-dollar industry - $60 billion spent every year (‘Harvard Business Review.’)

  • However, in February’s edition of HBR, it’s claimed that ‘just 10 per cent of leadership programmes deliver results.’

But when you actually analyse the truth about leadership, the poor return on leadership training is hardly surprising.

Consider our 9 truths about leadership in the workplace.

9 Truths About Leadership in the Workplace

Truth 1: The ability to lead is rare

If not, there’d be more good leaders.

  • Truth is, we don’t really understand this thing called leadership and why some people have the ability to be so good at it.

  • If we did, we wouldn’t be so obsessed with it - over 50,000 books in print with the word ‘leadership’ in their title.

Truth 2: Models of leadership aren’t of any particular use in the real world

Incredibly, some of the popular leadership models are around 70-years old. They go back to management guru Peter Drucker.

  • Truth is you’re dealing with people here –and how best to deal with people rarely follows a model, or fits into a spreadsheet.

  • Whether it’s situational leadership, level 5 leadership, servant leadership, or whatever the flavour of the month is – STOP. Get on with something useful.

  • ‘Great leaders are fluid, flexible and full of fluctuation. They are whatever shape they need to be to increase motivation.’ (Steven Bartlett, ‘The Diary of a CEO’)

  • Every team member is different. Leaders get the best results if they know their people as individuals, rather than the theories and models of leadership.

Truth 3: Leadership competency models are a sad waste of time

Bureaucratic, misleading. They drive the wrong behaviours.

  • Picks the competencies your leaders need. Take your pick there are hundreds out there. (Strategic awareness, tenacity, business awareness, decision making.)

  • Rate your leaders against the list (best of luck with that.) They then go away and work on improving their weaknesses.

  • Truth is if there was a defined list of competencies that effective leasers have, all companies would use them (they don’t.)

  • And we all know highly effective leaders who don’t have all the competencies on the list. So, what’s the point of having a list of leadership competencies if some of them are optional?

  • Please stop trying to get your authenticity score up from a ‘3’ to a ‘4.’ It’s a bit of a waste of time.

Truth 4: The most effective leaders aren’t well rounded individuals who work on their weaknesses

In the words of author Marcus Buckingham, ‘the most effective leaders are spikey.

  • The best leaders have a small number of characteristics they use to get results – drawing on their personality and character to get the best out of others. But all leaders have their shortcomings.

  • Truth is like a tennis player who runs around the ball to avoid her (weak) back hand, the most effective leaders play to their strengths – and have strategies to compensate for their weaknesses.

Truth 5: All effective leaders do the job in different ways

Look at any definition of the thing’s leaders should have to do the job, and then look at the good leaders in your company. You come across exception after exception.

  • Some leaders get results by being analytical, with a strong attention to detail - others by being energetic and outgoing.

  • And this is the case for all levels of leadership, inside and outside the workplace.

  • Truth is Angela Merkl didn’t do the job in the same way as Donald Trump.

  • The best we can say is that, if there is a magical formula out there that defines what makes an effective leader, there are plenty of leaders who get results operating in totally different ways - without sticking to the formula.

  • If that’s the case, the things that supposedly make up leadership, neither clarify or advance our understanding of how people get better at it.

Truth 6. Strong operational leaders are worth their weight in gold

When it comes to leading people, and dealing with all the nuances, there is no substitute for experience.

  • Steve Jobs summed it up (video ‘On Consulting’.) ‘Without owning something over an extended period, where one has a chance to pick oneself off the ground and dust oneself off, one learns a fraction of what one can.’

  • Experienced operational leaders are the ones staff look to for guidance. They’re the ones who get things done.

  • Truth is these are the leaders who make change work – or put the blockers on change if they have a mind to do so.

  • When it comes to leading people you learn more from hard earned experience than sitting in the classroom

Truth 7: Many leadership ‘experts ‘have never led anything

You wouldn’t go to a dentist who has never filled a tooth, no matter what it says on the door. So why listen to a ‘leadership expert,’ who has no solid experience leading people?

  • Take a look on LinkedIn. Every day posts about leadership.

  • Leadership is x, leadership is y. Experts, gurus, consultants.

  • Truth is as with most things in life, you’re far better off listening to the people who’ve spent time in the hot seat.

  • So, next time you see a post about leadership on LinkedIn, take a look at the authors leadership experience. Then decide whether to read the post or file it.

Truth 8: A leader is someone who has followers

The only thing that determines if anyone is leading is if anyone else is following.

  • Sadly, this is the thing many leaders forget. They wander through life thinking they’re effective – when, in reality, no-one is following.

  • Truth is something attracts people to follow the effective leader. It might be the way they speak or the vision they paint. It’s different for each follower.

  • Perhaps instead of trying to train people to be leaders, we should concentrate on training people to be good followers.

Truth 9: Companies cant train leaders to do the job. The best they can do is support them

In his book ‘How to Grow Leaders,’ John Adair, (who had worked as a corporate leader) argues that the best companies support their leaders to grow.

  • Select leaders carefully. Spend time getting the right people. Look for evidence of softer skills and cultural fit.

  • Onboard new leaders. Not in the technical aspects of the role. The culture and how things get done here.

  • Assign a mentor. AA more senior figure within the organisation.

  • Give leaders every opportunity to run projects and develop their skills. Preferably cross functional projects. Give them enhanced responsibility when appropriate.

  • Encourage external networking and allocate a senior manager sponsor.

Truth is, Adairs book was called ‘How to grow leaders,’ not ‘How to train leaders.’

Inspired by (amongst others) 9 lies about work by Marcus Buckingham

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