Leadership development is a good aspiration, and the tools used in it are very worthwhile. Most broadly, employee development is a worthwhile investment itself, almost independent of its effectiveness. In a survey by Culture Amp, development opportunities improved employees’ ratings of below-average managers by 21 points and the scores of above-average managers by 31 points. Perhaps more interesting, employees in organizations that do not offer development opportunities rated their own engagement identically, independent of the quality of the manager.

Solutions 21 has explored the field of leadership development—with members of our team participating in nearly every type of program, from business school and doctoral programs to civic leadership programs to two-day seminars. In doing so, we have discovered critical shortcomings in traditional leadership development that significantly reduce its effectiveness in the modern work context.

New Work Realities

When we work with next leaders in our programs, we discuss provocative questions about how leaders must work today. In one session, a manager of five employees presented a scenario that had her working with one of the team members at her location—the company’s headquarters— and four other employees who work remotely—two from home offices and two others in regional locations around the country. “With so much of what we discuss about leadership requiring me to be present, how do I tackle performance issues when someone is working remotely?” she asked.

Proximity, an assumption that has powered leadership development for decades, is becoming less common as companies of all sizes explore alternative work arrangements. This example is but one of many that create conflict between past perceptions of leadership and what is needed today.

Exposure Is Not Application

Powering most existing leadership programs is the idea that exposure to concepts will be inspirational enough to produce meaningful behavior change for those who are privileged to participate in the experience. Many perceive, erroneously, that attendance or completion of a leadership development program makes the person a leader.

In several instances, we have experienced this challenge, best illustrated by a candidate who had both completed an MBA, attended a regional leadership program designed to integrate under-40 professionals into the community, and participated in an industry-led high-potential program. Feedback about the candidate suggested significant challenges in managing peer relationships, which directly impacted his work performance. Yet he started his first coaching session by stating, “I’ve already done this stuff; I’m not sure why I’m here.” The gap between his exposure and application was profound.

The current leadership development paradigm creates an impression that participation in a program is enough to be prepared to take on the challenge of playing a crucial decision-making role. Unfortunately, there is just too little evidence to support the idea that exposure to leadership concepts translates to leader-level behaviors. Knowing something intellectually and being motivated and able to change yourself are two very different things.

Organizational Disconnect

We have seen a tendency among corporate leaders to “send people away” to leadership programs to “get better.” Candidates go away for a couple of days, a weekend, or a couple of times every few months and get energized by the new information they have learned.

Back at the office, it’s business as usual. Most managers don’t bother to check in on the candidates’ progress in the program. Whatever knowledge and enthusiasm candidates bring back to the office is squashed by a combination of habitual business-as-usual routines, disinterest, and a lack of reinforcement. A lack of direct connection to organizational objectives makes it easy for leadership to ignore the program entirely.

A Need For Change

As you can see, there’s a fundamental disconnect in how corporate cultures implement leadership development today. Models currently used are insufficiently responsive to changing work dynamics. They create a false sense of confidence and do not connect to the central organizational objective. They also lack a structure to provide the feedback that can help candidates overcome potentially career-limiting tendencies. Given the speed with which next leaders must step into higher-level roles, you cannot afford to continue to develop your people using obsolete methods.


Adapted from our best-selling book, The Leadership Decade: A Playbook for an Extraordinary Era. If you’d like to purchase a copy, please visit s21.us/tldbook for a hardback book or s21.us/tldebook for an ebook. For even more information, check out theleadershipdecade.com.