Most Leadership Development Programs Are A Waste of Time!

Let’s face it.  Most leadership programs are conducted by well meaning human resource managers or academics who view leadership as a mechanical process with “tools” that are available to the mechanic to “use” as circumstances dictate.  These “tools,” – mentoring, coaching, team building exercises and other forms of kumbaya – place the emphasis on what leaders “do.” In so doing, they confuse the practice of leadership with the essence of leadership.  As such, these programs are generally a waste of time.

Following is a list of criteria that I prepared recently for a client who wished to evaluate the leadership capabilities of his team.  Note the focus on essence – what leaders “are.” After completing the evaluations against this criteria, his reaction was “… gee, that was hard!”

So is the real world of leadership.  I offer them to those who wish to evaluate their leaders and those who aspire to become one.


Leaders must want to lead.  The leader must seek responsibility.  The number one task of the effective leader is to get results.  That requires causing others to willingly do that which they otherwise would be unwilling or unable to do themselves.  It’s hard work and not for the faint of heart.


A positive attitude and demonstrated interest in the welfare of others, the willingness to assume responsibility, and commitment to the best interests of the organization above personal aspirations is critical.  The focus is on how to accomplish the task, achieve the objective and overcome impediments, and not being dissuaded by all the reasons why it can’t be done.  Problems are opportunities, not excuses for failure.

Intelligence and Integrity

To lead requires intelligence and integrity.  Without either, the leader will fail to generate the trust required to lead.  Without trust, there is no leadership.


Mensa level brainpower is not required, but the leader must process data and facts and think in a logical, clear manner.  Intelligence is not the comprehension of the complex.  It is breaking the complex down to the manageable.

Thoughtful reasoning is far more important than merely relying upon experience.  No matter the experience, each situation is unique to some extent and must be treated in that manner.

The skill of the leader is converting the strategic objectives into tactical plans that are understandable,  interdependent and logical – and then managing that process to completion pursuant to a timetable – all in the midst of a changing environment with resource and time pressure.


Aristotle described integrity “… as the virtue from which all other virtues emanate.” It is the foundation of trust. Integrity requires respect for the truth in all circumstances.  It is the ability – and obligation – to sort through the gray and find the black and white.  It’s always there, but it takes commitment to the truth to find it.  Integrity then requires the moral courage to act, irrespective of one’s own welfare or points of view.

Intellectual Curiosity

This is a demonstrable sensitivity to the impact that new experiences can have on previous understanding and assumptions.  It is willingness to have assumptions modified, and keeping an open mind when confronted by new situations.  It is the basis for self improvement.


The leader must be mature enough, and have sufficient self confidence, to understand the limits of one’s own experience and be prepared to accept the input of others – and to seek it when required.  It is a sign of maturity to accept such input in an objective manner.  The unwillingness to listen or respect the views of others or displays of arrogance are signs of immaturity and must be addressed before it undermines credibility.  Self control is an indicator of maturity.  Losing one’s temper on a regular basis is a trait of the immature.


The leader must be aware of the impact of plans and actions on those subject to that leadership.  Those subjected to that leadership should be treated as individuals to the extent practicable in the circumstances.


Judgment entails responding to changing facts and circumstances and considering the impact it will have on plans and expectations.  It requires the recognition that time and resources are finite and that actions must be prioritized to achieve the difficult over the easy.


Leaders are decisive.  They understand the decision making process and are intellectually honest enough to lead the organization through it.  They require participation in that process yet understand that responsibility for the final decision is theirs.  The objective of decision making is to select the least worst alternative from those available – not short term consensus.  Consensus will emerge over time as the quality of the decisions made becomes apparent.


To achieve results, the leader must be able to direct a team in pursuit of common objectives.  That requires listening to others whose experiences may differ.  Teamwork requires that those experiences be considered.

Leaders must seek that input and ensure that all members of the team understand their tasks and are prepared to meet their objectives pursuant to the plan.

The leader must possess the functional management skills of planning, organizing, monitoring and correcting plans to be an effective team leader.


To have respect, the leader must demonstrate it.  Body language, critical or defensive comments, arrogance, unwillingness to acknowledge deficiency in performance or facts will effectively undermine respect. Common courtesy is expected, especially in reacting to perceived criticism or differing opinions.  The leader endeavors to act at all times with civility.

Leadership requires an understanding that respect is not a function of positional or relationship power.  It is a function of trust on the part of those being led.  Once lost, respect is difficult to recover.

Respect does not include the toleration of mediocrity or excuses for failure to achieve objectives.  It requires a positive attitude in the face of such behavior, but also requires a firm response.

Selfishness, arrogance and obvious self interest will undermine respect.


Leadership positions do not entail rights.  They entail responsibilities.  This is the greatest challenge for a leader in a difficult position.  It requires an understanding that accountability is absolute and cannot be delegated.  A commitment is firm unless mitigated by factors unforeseeable at the time.  Judgment requires that those factors be considered.

Objectives and commitments are to be met.

Leading the team in identifying strategic objectives, breaking them down into tactical plans and then organization and managing that process to completion is the “Day Job.” Delegation is not abdication.  The leader can and should delegate anything but accountability.  Discipline requires addressing the most important rather than the most convenient.

The leader neither accepts excuses nor offers them.  However, judgment requires distinguishing between true impediments, which must be addressed, compared with excuses, which must be confronted.

If circumstances change, then so does the plan.  The objectives must still be achieved.  Commitment must be a bond.  The objective is nothing less than results.

Set the Example

An example must constantly be set for others on the team with respect to integrity, teamwork, respect and responsibility.  Others cannot be expected to do what the leader is unwilling or unable to do.

The leader demonstrates a bias for action.   The leader approaches each task with a sense of urgency and seeks to instill that in the team.

Discipline of thought, word and action is essential to leadership.  The leader must hold to the highest standards and help others meet them.  The leader must be willing to coach, mentor and pitch in to see that the tasks are completed as committed.

Energy and Work Ethic

A strong work ethic and commitment to doing what is required to get the job done is critical.  If extra time is required to meet the deadline, then it must be incurred.  Little of substance will be accomplished in 40 hour weeks.


There are other attributes that can be added to this list, but I think you get the idea.  Leadership can be developed – provided the intellectual and moral raw material is there.  Your “Development Program” must begin with identifying the raw material.   Given the raw material, the program can then teach leadership principles and help aspiring leaders develop their skills through practice.  You can also pile on the Kumbaya, all of which has value in the practice of leadership.

Developing leaders must then be challenged in ever more responsibilities to sharpen and expand their skills through experience.

Leadership development is a primary responsibility of corporate management – and one that is too often ignored or poorly conducted.  The alternative to development is hoping that leaders will “emerge” and hope is a lousy strategy given the need for leadership.

Make it a priority while you still have the time.

As usual, we would like to hear your opinion. Email me at

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