A Perfect Example of Leadership Development Baloney

Thanks to the December Leadership Development Carnival at Inflexion Point and a great post by Wally Bock, I came across this article from Chief Learning Officer and this report from the venerable Center for Creative Leadership (CCL).

The CCL report, titled “The Leadership Gap” describes results of a survey given to 2,200 managers in 2006 and 2007 regarding needs for specific areas of leadership skill now and over the next five years. The report concludes:

1. Seven leadership skills are consistently viewed as most important now and in the future. They are: leading employees, strategic planning, inspiring commitment, managing change, resourcefulness, being a quick learner, and doing whatever it takes.”

2. Leaders lack the skills they need to be effective today. Of the ‘top five’ needs — inspiring commitment, strategic planning, leading people, resourcefulness, and employee development — only resourcefulness is considered be a ‘top ten’ skill. This is what CCL calls ‘the current leadership deficit.’

3. Leaders are not adequately prepared for the future. Today’s leadership capacity is insufficient to meet future leadership requirements. The four most important future skills — leading people, strategic planning, inspiring commitment, and managing change — are among the weakest competencies for today’s leaders. The leadership gap, then, appears notably in high-priority, high-stakes areas. Other areas where there is a significant gap between the needed and existing skill levels are: employee development, balancing personal life and work, and decisiveness.

The report also concludes that there are several areas that, while leadership strengths, do not require further attention:

Conversely, these data show that many leaders’ strengths are not in areas that are most important for success. Organizations report greater bench strength in areas of building and mending relationships, compassion and sensitivity, cultural adaptability, respecting individual differences, composure, and self-awareness. In organizations where this is the case, sufficient skill-level has been established in these areas and further large-scale efforts to boost these areas are unnecessary. These are mapped in the charts below as ‘over-investments.’

You mean to say leadership development programs don’t need to focus on these areas, particularly areas that affect diversity and creating inclusive workplaces where people are well-treated? Really?

Here’s my view. I think that’s offensive.

And I think it’s a perfect example of leadership development baloney, where we are supposed to trust to the science of the survey as an absolute in order to purchase something, in this case, more surveys for your own organization. I mean this data from the report might be an interesting discussion starter, but in any area that involves people and their perceptions, there’s no “truth” to be found. This is about perceptions, beliefs and biases, not some sort of objective reality, as I mentioned in my last post. And certainly perceptions do need to be addressed, but good grief, the findings here are simplistic and remarkably superficial. For example, in describing what is meant by this dimension, “Leading People,” we find:

Leading people. Leaders who have good skills in directing and motivating people know how to interact with staff in ways that motivate them. They delegate to employees effectively, broaden employee opportunities, act with fairness toward direct reports, and hire talented people for their teams. To develop this skill in your organization you will want to:
• Communicate the specific behaviors and skills that are related to managing others well. Be sure managers know them and understand them in context of their roles.
• Assess leaders on the key behaviors and skills. Use consistent assessment practices; 360-degree leadership development assessment tools are often most detailed and helpful.
• Create training programs and developmental assignments. Arrange for training and facilitation by reputable leadership development organizations.
• Develop internal groups to share experiences. Use forums and discussion groups to share lessons learned and best practices related to handling teams.
• Foster a feedback-rich environment. Develop mentoring programs and train management in ways to give feedback effectively.

Yup, that first line is certainly true: “Leaders who have good skills in directing and motivating people know how to interact with staff in ways that motivate them.” Can’t argue with that but it begs the question of whether anyone proofread the report before it went out. And the rest of it? How is this different from other forms of management training going back many, many years? Is there anything new here? If so, what?


All of this looks to me like such a self-serving marketing piece rather than anything remotely meaningful in terms of actual survey research. Yes, I personally do use surveys (e.g. my Team Trust Survey) and, yes, I even give my survey tool away free in part as a form of marketing, but what I wouldn’t do is tell you it’s a survey of reality rather than a survey of perceptions. What worries me about this stuff is that it actively reinforces belief sets that may actually undermine the true work that needs to be done — especially the tough leadership development work that has a lot to do with relationships, sensitivity, respecting differences, and yes, self-awareness. If CCL had concluded something, anything, about the perceptions they report, I’d have been happier. What do these perceptions mean after all? What are the real needs behind them? But they apparently didn’t take on that evaluation. What it appears they are doing is using them to bolster their business lines.

Here’s another example from the report, this one having to do with what an organization can do to help leaders “inspire commitment.”

Inspiring commitment. Managers who recognize and reward employees’ achievements are able to inspire commitment from their subordinates. Such managers publicly praise others for their performance, understand what motivates other people to perform at their best, and provide tangible rewards for significant organizational achievements. Organizations can strengthen this skill by:
• Clarifying the vision. Describe how it connects with employees’ roles and talk about the responsibility each person has for realizing the organization’s vision.
• Passing it on. Help managers effectively and consistently communicate a clear vision and direction.
• Raising standards. Encourage managers to expect high standards of performance and interpersonal competence.
• Reinforcing success. Develop recognition opportunities for managers to publicly acknowledge their employees.

If you’ve followed me this far, dear reader, search your own heart. Do applying these very old school conservative ideas actually inspire commitment? I don’t mean to say they are totally bad ideas, but do they really do the job? Do they foster authentic engagement? Or are they implicitly a defense of managers and a criticism of employees? Think about it. Each of these suggestions is about something done externally, not something within the leader’s own being, passion, purposes or presence at all. This seems more about layering on shallow techniques to fix those uncommitted employees than about being honest, real, or genuine — not to mention personally committed — as a means to inspire others. Are these techniques what CCL calls “skills”?

Over the years I have heard many good things about the Center for Creative Leadership. This material seems far outside that norm and seems to come with less understanding of how organizational beliefs operate, what they mean, and their connection to the core of what leadership is.

Am I being wacky here or have I called out some nonsense for what it is?

Technorati Tags: . Link to blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.


  • Dick Richards wrote:

    WELL! Let’s see. I’ve coached maybe a hundred leaders, consulted to a handful of lengthy whole system change projects, designed and led leadership training, and even wrote a book about leadership based on all of that experience plus in-depth interviews with twenty well recognized leaders. The book was published by the American Management Association. I also consulted briefly with CCL.

    So…having established at least a modicum of credibility on the subject…your analysis and comments, Dan, are right on target and not in the least bit “wacky.” It appears that CCL has fallen into the too-common trap of viewing leadership as a mere skill set.

  • Vincenza wrote:

    Right on, Dan! This is one of those things I would have read blindly and just moved on. I so love the way you make us stop and think about what we’re reading and what it MEANS. After all, meaning-making is a key leadership skill, isn’t it? 🙂

    I’m about to take on a new role – Training and Development Manager for The Culinary Institute of America. Big change, big move. My focus will be – you guessed it – leadership development. I hope I can find the same kind of wisdom you show as I’m trying to establish a leadership path for my new organization.

    Thanks, and Happy New Year!

  • Vincenza and Dick

    Thank you both for your very supportive comments. Vincenza, your focus on meaning-making is at the heart of my objection to the CCL report. Dick, thanks for reminding us all how easy it is to fall into the trap….Happy New Year to both of you.

  • Thanks for the shout-out, Dan, on my article about the same “study” you so nicely dissected.

  • Thanks to you, Wally. Wouldn’t have found it without you!

  • I think leader is the most important person in every business and without communication in business there is no leadership. It not only takes time to learn leadership skills but also to develop those skills. You not only need to have good verbal skills, but also listening and visual skills. These all make for a great leader.

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