Leadership development has ballooned into a £10 billion industry, with mountains of literature – with conflicting priorities – truckloads of books, and hundreds of complex models. Given this level of investment and research, we ought by now to have organisations packed with effective leaders who have been through the expensive, ubiquitous and long-running development programmes. However, the need for “leaders at all levels” is one of the 12 critical issues identified in the Global Human Capital Trends 2014 survey published by Deloitte University Press, the publishing arm of the professional services firm’s leadership centre. In a paper examining the findings, Deloitte researchers point out that leadership “remains the No. 1 talent issue facing organizations around the world,” with 86% of respondents to the survey rating it “urgent” or “important.” However, the fact that only 13% say they do an excellent job of developing leaders at all levels means that this area has the largest “readiness gap” in the survey. It has been said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different outcome. Does this insanity apply to leadership development programmes?

A diagnosis of the problem yields some clues on how to deal with it. One of the biggest issues is that many leadership development programmes focus more on building the knowledge of leadership rather than practicing the skills of ‘leading’. Have we got the balance wrong – and if so, how can we redress sit? Some research in this area supports this view. Morgan McCall and his colleagues working at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) are credited with originating the 70:20:10 ratio model. Two of McCall’s colleagues, Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger, published data from one CCL study in their book The Career Architect Development Planner. Based on a survey asking nearly 200 executives to self-report how they believed they learned the authors surmised that “development generally begins with a realization of current or future need and the motivation to do something about it. This might come from feedback, a mistake, watching other people’s reactions, failing or not being up to a task – in other words, from experience. The odds are that development will be about 70% from on-the-job experiences – working on tasks and problems; about 20% from feedback and working around good and bad examples of the need; and 10% from courses and reading.” What are the %s for your development programmes and would concentrating more on the action verb ‘leading’ instead of the more passive noun ‘leadership’ help?

We now have instant internet access to most of the knowledge on Leadership without attending any development programmes. Building knowledge is relatively easy if the motivation is there – so do we really need to be starting from there? Or should we start with the identification of a skill gap in personal development to ‘lead’ more effectively and then work on this through executive coaching and/or challenging assignments to build skills rather than knowledge? The gap between knowing and doing has never been larger and the massive investment in leadership development has only managed to dent this in a limited way. For example, failing to practice values-based leadership is rarely because people do not know what the values of their organisation are. Doing is much harder than saying and doing when no one is watching is even harder! Is it time to invert the pyramid of leadership learning programmes?

People already know what good leaders do. Ask them what ‘leading’ looks like using the verb and people will tell you by providing examples of behaviour. Ask what ‘leadership’ means and you will get the latest theory or ‘memory crumbs’ from the last course they attended. Wrongly placing emphasis on the noun allows movement away from the reality that leading is a doing thing and we should start from there. After all your leadership ‘footprint’ is surely the aggregate of all the things you do and say – not all the things you know? Are the conversations in your organization about ‘leadership’ or about ‘leading’!?

It is very difficult if not impossible to ‘create’ a leader in a classroom. Leadership is not a theory to be taught – it is a practice which must be learned and appreciated through experience of ‘leading’. Leadership development is about taking action, learning from this and gaining useful insights. Development needs to be more immediate, measurable and linked to a real return for the organisation and the individuals. Bottom line here is that leadership development programmes have not delivered the expected benefits. Should we persevere with a model that is broken or should we change tack by focusing on leading not leadership?

I have worked in Organisational Development across all sectors with a particular interest in the central role of people. Organisations change one person at a time and my focus is on how to facilitate those changes.