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What is most lacking in leadership training?

What is most lacking in leadership training?

Leadership thumbnail
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A 2017 Training Industry report stated that the annual expenditure on corporate learning, in the United States alone, was US $90 Billion. The global figures are significantly higher. According to Bersin by Deloitte, over 35% of the total corporate learning investment is on leadership development alone. Impressive figures, right? But what do we have to show for it?

Here are some truths:

  1. Leadership development cannot be taught in a classroom
  2. Leadership training is not effectuating enough positive change to justify the investment
  3. Organizations continue to feel that the investments in leadership development aren’t necessarily resulting in an inspired workforce, that is, leader effectiveness scores continue to be low

The question that stands – is it worth continuing to invest such large sums of money in leadership development? The answer is, yes. It is not that organizations are investing too much or too little in their development initiatives. The problem lies in the construct of the training initiative – are you employing the right methodologies optimal for leadership development?

Let’s look at the agenda of a typical leadership development program:


To the naked eye, there appears to be nothing wrong with this snapshot. After all, it appears to cover the basic tenets of leadership development – personal commitment, peer interaction and feedback, and coaching. Then why is the return on investment nowhere close to the expectation?

The answer lies in reading between the lines to understand what is ‘MISSING’ in leadership development? To answer this question, there are FIVE crucial elements missing in traditional leadership training efforts:


We’ve established that leadership roles are high stakes, and therefore, leadership development initiatives are high stakes as well. Where current leadership trainings fail is in not allowing leaders to hypothesize, experiment and practice in safe learning environments. In fact, some studies have shown that only 10% of corporate training is effective, and it’s not because the content of the training programs is bad. As a result, often, leaders are underprepared to manage the challenges of their roles and create very little positive or lasting impact.

The reality is that the modern workforce needs and promotes leaders at every level. The lack of experience is not a good enough reason to perform poorly as leaders. In the digital age, potential needs to quickly convert to high performance. To do so, one needs accelerated learning and practice. Practice entails making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Unfortunately, making mistakes while learning on-the-job can produce catastrophic results.

What are organizations doing to mitigate this challenge? Currently, not much. LinkedIn’s first annual Workplace Learning Report highlights that only 8% of CEOs see business impact from leadership training programs, while only 4% of CEOs see a clear ROI. Learning experts – what are you going to do about this?


Current leadership development programs are taking the initiative to include peer feedback and expert coaching. Seems impactful enough, right? Wrong! Where current leadership trainings fail is in realizing that the feedback given is highly subjective and riddled with biases, based on experience and exposure. Peers and coaches provide learners with feedback based on what they “FEEL” is right or appropriate, without any real scientific data to back their claims.

Subjective feedback doesn’t provide much help in creating demonstrable, impactful and sustained changes. Instead, they often cause learners to get defensive, justifying their actions or even simply stating that they will reflect over it. In reality, these suggestions are never implemented.

What helps leaners create positive change is in seeing the impact that their actions create, which, in discussion, is purely hypothetical. Without clear impact, how does one justify the time, money, energy and effort poured into leadership development programs? 


As stated above, leadership development cannot effectively take place in a classroom or through discussions. Action is a key driver of leadership development. Where current leadership trainings fail is in limiting learning to the boundaries of a classroom or an online course. In reality, leadership training is no different from a professional college course that requires an internship. The internship allows students to experience what they learn in live environments. It is here that they learn the accurate nuances of their chosen paths.

This is also true for leadership development, which is entirely about managing people, change, business and innovation, none of which can be taught within the boundaries of a training program. Do you include on-site activities and exposure in your leadership development interventions? To clarify, by on-site activities, we mean implementing learning in the learner’s actual role and business, understanding the impact of their actions and learning to manage the consequences of these actions effectively and efficiently.

Let’s not be naïve to believe that such a suggestion is practical and easily implementable. It does require significant logistics and tactical alignment of learning and business, which can very easily disrupt business. A reasonable alternative to delivering similar results as on-site exposure is the implementation of simulations in leadership development.


Leaders are like finger prints, in that no two leaders are alike. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach is redundant in leadership development. Unfortunately, most current leadership trainings adopt this approach, which easily justifies the lack of clear returns on the learning investment.

Coaching seems the perfect answer to this dilemma. However, the advent of the digital age necessitates agility and acceleration. As a result, coaching is not always an optimal solution, as coaching is a long and sometimes arduous journey. In travel lingo, coaching is the long train ride through the scenic countryside in a time where people prefer flights to save time. In other words, coaching is a luxury learning methodology that most learners cannot afford to indulge in today; definitely not as a standalone development methodology.

The reality remains, however, that modern leaders need hyper-personalized development plans that cater specifically to their challenges, needs and expectations. So, the question to learning professionals is, ‘Are your leadership programs catering customized to the learners’ context’? To give perspective on the gravity of this question, 62% leaders believe that their leadership programs don’t effectively meet their learner’s needs. Where do you stand on this spectrum?


One of the biggest oversights in current leadership training is that there is too much internal discussion. The leadership community is comparatively small, and within that as well there are clusters and pockets of conversation. Unfortunately, leaders stick to their own cohorts. These cohorts are sliced and diced multiple different ways – generationally, industry-specific, and geographically are just some of the ways the leadership community is split up. It has nothing to do with their leadership capabilities.

This behavior percolates into leadership training as well. Feedback and coaching happens within the cohort. However, we have already established that leadership is about people management, right? Where’s the voice of the people? Let’s be realistic – there is very little honest feedback that goes to leaders from the people they manage. This is either from fear of getting on the leader’s bad side, or because of respect for their age and experience. The minute your team tells you exactly what they think about you is when honest conversations are taking place. This scenario is a long shot, because it needs a lot of effort – building a trusting relationship with the team free from all conditions based on how one might feel. This is not unattainable.

Leadership training, however, does not make allowances for this. Therefore, often leaders are left with they “belief” they are doing wrong or what their peers are telling them. Well, what are your teams saying about you as a leader? Mind you, we’re not talking about a survey form either. Do your leaders know how their actions affect the people they lead? Well, it’s high time they do.

Think it is time to revisit your leadership development training methodology? It absolutely is! We recommend simulation-based learning. To know more about modern leadership development solutions within your organization, get in touch with us at KNOLSKAPE.


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KNOLSKAPE is a global leader in experiential learning with a mission to help organizations and employees become future ready. Using a large award-winning portfolio of simulations aligned with 100+ competencies and cutting-edge talent intelligence, KNOLSKAPE produces stellar outcomes for more than 375+ organizations across 75 countries. Driven by research and thought leadership, KNOLSKAPE offers its products and solutions in a flexible subscription model powered by omni-channel delivery.

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