Traditional leadership development is outdated. Leadership bestsellers, seminars, and two-day retreats do not fit the needs of next generation of leaders. These tactics reinforce nugget-a-day improvement instead of building the muscle memory habits and skills necessary to make decisions at an executive level.

Approximately 14 billion dollars were spent on leadership development in the US in 2012. Although this number may seem high, the alarming truth is that executives do not feel as if they are seeing the return on this investment. Only 1 in 4 executives feel that the training programs they have put their employees through have impacted their performance. More money is spent on leadership development than any other area of corporate learning, yet 71% of companies do not feel their leaders are able to lead their organization into the future.

If there is this big of an investment of resources into this area, how is it that companies continue to miss the mark when it comes to their return on investment? Below are a few reasons why the old leadership development methods just aren’t cutting it.

Scientifically ineffective

One significant reason that old leadership training methods are ineffective is because of the way in which the information is presented. Classroom-style teaching for leadership development is not the right fit. Many leadership training programs gather leaders in a university-styled classroom and listen to a lecture. Though the participants may be energized to go back and put what they’ve learned into practice, their enthusiasm to execute these new strategies will dissipate. And quickly. Without the muscle memory repetition that is required of high-level executive decision makers, these folks will almost always revert back to their old ways.

From Why Leadership Training Doesn’t Work

Habit formation doesn’t just happen. Our brains aren’t wired to adopt a new habit quickly. No matter how good and engaging the presentation is, habit formation takes time. It occurs when a new action, like the leadership skill of listening with intention and attention, is practiced over and over.

From The Pausing Principle: Increasing the Efficiency of Memory for Ongoing Events

Adult learners in a lecture setting forget nearly 50% of what they learn within two weeks of the lecture.

From McKinsey and Co’s Why Leadership Development Programs Fail

 “On the other hand, even after very basic training sessions, adults typically retain just 10 percent of what they hear in classroom lectures, versus nearly two-thirds when they learn by doing.”

Mistaken identity

Another reason why leadership development initiatives are missing the mark is because organizations are simply not investing their resources into the right people. Many organizations, by default, reserve their training expenses for the senior and executive level. In fact, only 17% of leadership development budgets go to high-potential professionals who aren’t yet in managerial roles. Though important, if high-potential candidates are not identified and invested in, how can an organization build the bench strength needed to effectively fill leadership roles?

Even worse, some organizations offer training opportunities to everyone within the organization. While this strategy may be a nice gesture, so as to not ruffle any feathers, the avoidance of identifying high-potentials and investing solely in their development will limit the depth of skill that can be developed, thus seriously handicapping their potential.

From Gallup’s 2015 State of the American Manager Report

In a study of 2.5 million manager-led teams in 195 countries, it was found that the top two reasons employees are promoted to management positions are because they were successful in a non-managerial role and they have experience and tenure with the company — not because they have leadership potential or experience.

One size doesn’t fit all

No two companies are identical, so why should leadership development be seen as a one-size-fits-all investment? When investing in leadership development, context and customization is important. Solutions that teach the same information to everyone -with no customization or one-on-one coaching – will not transform individual contributors into executive-level decision makers. Customized engagement, both in programming and in coaching, allows for participants to relate what they are learning to their own individual experiences within their organization. Simply learning a broad concept does not always mean that someone can connect the dots back to their real-world situation.

From The Importance of Coaching to Leadership Development

“One of the key differentiators was the use of coaches. The report found that high performing organizations made extensive use of both formal and informal coaches and mentors.“

From Zenger Folkman’s Employee Commitment-And-Engagement

Leaders in the 90th percentile for coaching effectiveness had employee commitment scores in the 88th percentile. But leaders in the 10th percentile for coaching had employees at the 15th percentile for commitment.

From Stanford’s CEO Talent: America’s Scarcest Resources 2017 Talent Survey

Virtually 100% of CEO’s want some type of executive coaching, but only 34% of CEO’s surveyed receive coaching


There is an alarming disparity in the effectiveness of today’s 21st-century leadership development methods when only 15% of employees who have received some sort of leadership development feel that they are now more prepared for their next role.

It is of the utmost importance for organizations in today’s 21st-century marketplace to understand that leadership development is a process, the appropriate candidates deserve their investment, and development must be real-time and customized.

Do your leadership development initiatives make the cut?