Leadership Development is Not a Perk

It’s an essential training experience for up-and-comers long before they become leaders
Leadership Development

The essentials

Julian Barling, Borden Chair of Leadership at Queen's School of Business, says he cannot think of another work role in which organizations would only offer job training to people long after starting in that role, and then primarily to those individuals already showing that they can do the job. But that’s what happens with leadership development; invariably, it's a reward for good leadership rather than an opportunity to improve leadership. Ensuring that organizational needs are met, Barling writes, requires that the appropriate talent pool be identified, developed, expanded, and nurtured long before people are ever allowed to step into leadership roles. It is a wise investment: research has shown that the more organizations invest in their members, the more likely they are to stay.

Excerpted from The Science of Leadership by Julian Barling with permission from Oxford University Press USA, © 2014 by OUP.

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Practical pressures to develop, strengthen, and maintain high-quality leadership have resulted in innumerable attempts to do so, using a variety of different techniques and programs (e.g., formal training, coaching, mentoring). [P]eer-reviewed and published research evaluating the effectiveness of formal leadership development initiatives [is] both comforting and unsettling — comforting inasmuch as we can conclude broadly that leadership development initiatives are effective, and cost-effective too, but unsettling because it is also clear that we can, and need, to do so much more.

Notwithstanding the extensive research on leadership training and development, one aspect that is not covered is how individuals are typically selected to participate in these leadership development initiatives in the first place. As noted by others, and consistent with my own experience conducting leadership development workshops, what invariably happens is that high-quality leaders who are loyal organizational members are selected by their organizations to attend leadership workshops. At a very superficial level, one might like to argue that this makes perfect sense: Leadership development programs are costly, so why would organizations allocate considerable training resources to leaders who might be less committed and more likely to leave the organization, taking any newly learned skills with them? No less importantly, why would or should organizations allocate their scarce resources to poor performers who may not benefit from the developmental opportunity?

When organizations invest in employees, employees stick around

This argument can be questioned on the basis of scientific findings. Though seemingly counterintuitive, the more organizations invest in their members, the more likely they are to stay. George Benson, David Feingold, and Susan Mohrman investigated the effects of a retention program in a large, high-tech manufacturing company in the United States, in which employees were fully reimbursed for tuition expenses incurred for completing a degree or professional development program, and even received a bonus upon completion.

What happened then is most revealing. Attaining a graduate degree was predictably associated with higher turnover rates because it created additional opportunities. However, turnover was reduced where the company invested fully in the people who had attained the new skills, with the largest retention effect for those who had attained new skills and were then promoted and hence had the opportunity to use the new skills. The lesson is clear: Investing in people signifies that they are important and that they belong. They will become more attached to organizations that invest in their leadership development and provide opportunities and discretion to use their newly acquired skills, and more motivated to do what they can in the pursuit of high performance.

Contrast this with the prevailing way of thinking about leadership development in so many organizations, where attending leadership development initiatives is invariably a reward for good leadership, rather than an opportunity to improve leadership. Worsening this situation, leadership training is invariably only offered after becoming a leader, not beforehand, clearly revealing the risk-averse attitude of most organizations to investing in leadership development.

Waiting for individuals to be selected for their first leadership role and then providing them with developmental opportunities is still a case of “too little, too late”

What is called for is nothing less than a total change in the approach to leadership development, and appropriate lessons might again be gleaned from high-functioning military organizations, in which leaders are trained well before they are ever allowed to enter the theater of battle.

When the consequences of leadership directly affect the life and death of followers, training takes place first. Given the effects of leadership on employee injuries and occupational safety, their physical health and mental illness, why would traditional work organizations pursue a different path?

At the very least, after selection decisions have been made, but prior to assuming their role, newly selected leaders should have access to leadership development initiatives. Waiting for individuals to be selected for their first leadership role, and then providing them with developmental opportunities, is still a case of “too little, too late.” Ensuring that the organizational need for leadership is met requires that the appropriate talent pool be identified, developed, expanded, and nurtured long before people are ever allowed to step into the role. Organizations cannot meet this burden alone, and societies concerned about their future have a role to play in expanding the overall pool of leadership talent required for their own social and economic well-being.

Web-based training offers great possibilities

Opportunities that go well beyond work organizations and are available well before adulthood — perhaps even integrated into regular school curricula — will undoubtedly serve the greatest good. As DeAlton Partridge argued about adolescent experiences in schools, “there should be ample opportunity for . . . individuals who have potential leadership qualities to exercise these qualities in a way which will equip them to be of better service to humanity” — but he said this in 1935. Whether at the organizational or wider social level, insisting on the one hand that leaders matter while on the other refusing to invest in their development is simply no longer defensible.

The advent of Internet technologies and their accessibility in all corners of the world now offer exciting opportunities to extend the reach of leadership development initiatives to meet the needs of many more people in ways and places that previously would have been unthinkable. Again we can learn from the field of psychotherapy, where people can now successfully receive computer-aided therapy for some psychological disorders in the comfort of their own home. Opportunities for spreading the benefits of leadership development are at a point where the major limitations will be the presenter’s creativity and openness to change. Webinars delivered through videoconferencing or booster sessions conducted on smart phones are already possible. Ironically, many of these technologies will enable leadership development interventions to be personalized in ways that are incompatible with delivery in larger groups. It does not take much to predict that the future of leadership development initiatives will look very different from the past.

Smith School of Business
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