Bringing Leadership Development Programs into the 21st Century

“Leadership is no longer about possessing certain personal characteristics, but about the ability to set goals and achieve desired results.”

Linda L. Martin

Leadership development programs are everywhere, all promising spectacular results if you’re willing to shell out the cost. Despite this fact, it’s generally agreed that we’re facing a deepening “leadership crisis” in business and government.  These two facts just don’t add up. This article takes a look into the “leadership industry,” seeking explanations for this situation and offering suggestions for improving it.

Long term expert on leadership Barbara Kellerman, in her book Bad Leadership: What It Is, Why It Happens, Why It Matters, takes a serious look at what many have dubbed a crisis situation. Rather than proclaiming her expertise and promising to produce stellar leaders for a price, Dr. Kellerman offers valuable insights into a troubled industry and offers useful suggestions for its improvement.

The leadership crisis

Dr. Kellerman takes an honest look at where our leadership problems are coming from and why the business of leadership development falls short of its promises. As you might guess, there is no one simple answer. But a thorough review of the situation coupled with some genuinely thoughtful reflection can help to illuminate the situation.

Our problems are not coming from the fact that too few people are going through leadership development programs.  Our problems are rooted in age old human frailties such as self-centeredness, greed, denial, and tendencies to take simplistic views of complex situations. 

Given that some of the greatest leaders in history (e.g., Abraham Lincoln, Ghandi) never had the benefit of leadership development programs, but rather overcame their human frailties, I think we should put the utility of such programs in its proper perspective.

A multibillion dollar industry

The fact that billions are spent on leadership training programs and seminars every year attests to the reality that the dearth of effective leadership is one of the biggest problems facing our future and well being. And despite the fact that our society is flooded with “graduates” of such programs, the absence of leadership continues to be a problem.

According to Brian Tracy, author of The 100 Absolutely Unbreakable Laws of Business Success, there has never been a greater need for leaders at all levels than there is today.  Long-term expert on leadership Warren Bennis, himself a successful business executive, goes much further with his warning that a shortage of effective leaders “…is the most urgent and dangerous of the threats we face today, if only because it is insufficiently recognized and little understood.”

A quick review of the news at the local, national, and international levels is all it takes to understand that we’ve got leadership problems at all levels that are not limited by geographical boundaries— all in spite of the countless programs and seminars that promise fill the void.

Poorly concocted leadership programs

The desperate need for effective leaders is better described as being exploited rather than being fulfilled by the myriads of programs on the market. When demand exceeds supply, as is the case with effective leaders, it creates a circumstance in which offerings that vary widely in their quality appear in the marketplace.

Among the shabbiest of programs available are those that feature lists of trait adjectives purported to characterize effective leaders (e.g., decisiveness, empathy, persuasiveness, etc.). All one needs to do is learn the list, designate oneself as having the “skills” implied by those traits, and one is ready for leadership.

Other examples ill-conceived leadership training programs are those that consist of jargon laced formulae for performing such works as “transforming” subordinates or “empowering” others. Never mind that no means of implementing these formulae accompany the jargon. A mastery of the words and the accompanying certification are sufficient in their own rights to qualify one for leadership.

Many such programs are reflections of the state of the art during decades gone by, and persist despite the fact that evidence shows that they produce few if any measurable benefits. 

Effective leadership programs do exist

Fortunately, effective leadership programs exist, are well run, and do produce measurable outcomes. Most of these, however, are tied to specific industries that have identifiable strategies for success. That is why they have practical value. They link directly to what people do on a daily basis. 

The truth is that there is no one single set of qualities that define “leadership” which can be applied to just any situation to produce positive results. The idea that there is may be appealing in the academic sense, but such a view is oversimplified and ill suited to the real world of business.

By linking leadership development to specific business activities known to be associated with positive results, we can do more than just hope that they will produce desirable behavioral changes. 

Take your cue from the military

The kinds of leadership training found in our armed forces exemplify this approach. The purpose is to develop military leaders, not just “leadership” in the abstract. It’s a much more functional approach to leadership development, because its primary orientation is that of producing tangible and measurable outcomes in a specific domain.

“Fail-safe leadership”

One example of the approach described above is called “fail-safe leadership.” It was developed by the late Linda L. Martin and her colleague Dr. David Mutchler, both highly successful entrepreneurs with experience in an array of businesses.

Martin and Mutchler, both advocates of “no nonsense, get-it-done” approaches to business, shared a frustration with the ineffectiveness of traditional leadership development programs and their emphasis on generalized leadership qualities that sound good, but have little applicability to the real world of business. 

Noting the poor results typically associated with such programs, they set about linking leadership development programs to specific business strategies and processes that lead to results that are measurable. Their approach, dubbed “fail-safe leadership,” is presented in their book by the same name.

It all starts with strategy

Rather than depending on leadership development programs that are detached from specific business processes, Martin and Mutchler “begin with the end in mind”— defining the desired results and the means of attaining them. As champions of strategic planning, they suggest that businesses grow people and processes in ways that ensure desired results.

The first task of leadership is that of developing a clearly articulated functional strategy— this in itself is nothing new. But within the fail-safe model, all leadership development processes are dictated by the elements of the strategic plan.    

Implications for leadership development

Rather than running training programs aimed at developing qualities associated with “leadership” in an abstract or theoretical sense and hoping that they lead to desirable results, all training is linked directly to the activities and processes identified as critical to success by the strategic plan.

To quote Martin and Mutchler, “Leadership is about following the processes that lead to desired outcomes.” The best leaders are also followers. As trends and economic conditions shift and force changes in the strategy plan, leadership development processes can be adjusted accordingly.

The importance of alignment

The fail-safe model is designed to assure that all aspects of business operations are “aligned,” (coordinated) to maximize the achievement of desired results. Day to day activities and operations are in alignment with a strategic plan. If the plan has been carefully worked out, it will include goals and action steps that are in alignment a guiding vision of the organization’s future.

This should also then lead to revisions in training and development programs, which are all too often not in alignment with day to day activities or the organization’s vision as articulated in the strategic plan.

Sound strategic planning is essential

All of this of course depends on the soundness of the strategic planning process. It’s the core of any business, large, small, or in between. But given the millions wasted on leadership development programs that yield little to no ROI, it only makes sense to follow Martin and Mutchler’s lead and link such programs directly to the domain in which the leadership skills will be applied.

The future of leadership

Few commentators disagree with the view that we’ve got serious problems in the very important domain we call leadership, and that leadership is the single most important determinant of the success of an organization or of a country.  Rather than continuing to treat it as a linguistic abstraction or as something that will eventually improve on its own, it’s time we become proactive in regard to this most important determinant of our future well-being and exercise a little leadership.

Dr. Richardson is the founder of Redwood Enterprises, a business consulting, training, and executive coaching firm that specializes in helping business owners make sure that what they do every day reflects their strategic plans. He is available for speaking engagements on business related topics. Visit his company’s website at, or contact Redwood Enterprises by phone at 610.326.3670.