Why Do Leadership Training?

I think, when it boils right down to it, there are basically two primary reasons an organization would opt not to provide leadership training:

  1. No money: Like it or not, when times are tough, training is an expenditure that gets immediate and careful scrutiny. Leadership training in particular. Since we are all well aware that the impact and tangible results attributed to leadership training take a while to emerge on the tangible metrics dashboard, it is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to argue with suspending that investment in the middle of a legitimate financial emergency.
  2. No perceived value: We have all heard of, or perhaps even worked for, organizations where leadership training made no sense whatsoever. Top management didn’t believe in it and the culture didn’t support it. While there are no doubt exceptions to every rule, these organizations typically share a belief that people (customers, frontline employees, first-time managers) are in large supply and, as such, expendable. As a matter of fact, when organizations with that philosophical view actually do leadership training (for whatever crazy reason), it routinely causes more problems than it addresses (primarily because it shines a spotlight on a glaring cross-section of neglect).

Now, from my admittedly biased perspective, there are a number of compelling reasons to invest in training the leaders in your organization. Here is what I believe to be one of the best: leadership is hard.

Chris McLean is the Global Master Trainer for us at The Center for Leadership Studies (CLS). It is difficult to imagine where we would be without his consistent, dependable excellence. On average, Chris delivers programs in our Situational Leadership® suite to front-line leaders and mid-level managers across industries and around the world 130 days a year. In that capacity, he hears an ongoing series of leadership challenges from a wide spectrum of leadership learners. During those exchanges, someone will inevitably refer to the experience they are in the middle of as “soft-skills training.” Chris replies by saying something like:

Great example of a highly relevant leadership challenge, but I think a much more accurate description of what we will be covering today would be ‘hard-skills training.’”

If you take a minute to unpack that notion for a minute, truer words were never spoken! Understanding leadership is “a can of corn” (i.e., “Easy!”). Successfully and effectively implementing a leadership strategy is something altogether different. It’s the difference between watching a video case study depicting hypothetical dynamics and formulating an opinion on how that situation could be resolved and being placed in the middle of those same dynamics in a real-world setting and assuming responsibility for the orchestration of a real resolution. Night and day!

With all of that in mind, I had the opportunity recently to provide career advice to a young lady I have known for years (Elinor). Elinor could best be described as extremely bright, hard-working and ambitious. She seeks (at the ripe old age of “twenty something”) to figure out the next steps of her work-related journey. On a side note, the fact that she is taking personal charge of that journey and seeking advice is something I both applaud and recommend.

After the pleasantries had been covered and the central purpose of our discussion reviewed, Elinor got the ball rolling:

“I’ve been promoted three times in four years as a customer-facing sales person. I really think I want to move into management, which is why I wanted to talk to you.”

I responded with something like, “Well first off, I’m honored. Tell me a little bit about why you want to move in the management direction.”

She said, “I just think I’m ready. Our company pays our managers really well, and I think I’ve worked really hard since I got this job understanding what you need to do and how you need to do it. I think I’d be good at it.”

For once in my life, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t jump right in and break the awkward silence and robotically reinforce her enthusiasm. Additionally (and almost immediately), an image of Chris McLean popped into my head.

After what seemed like an eternity (in real time probably about 10 seconds), Elinor broke the silence by saying (and I quote directly here), “What?”

Which I felt was my cue to offer the following, “Please take what I am about to say in the spirit in which it is offered (support and assistance). Managing people is really, really hard. I’m not saying for a second you couldn’t do it and do it very well. I’m simply saying far too often people in your position don’t fully comprehend what they are getting themselves into. Consider just for a moment your immediate circle of friends. Confine it to people we both know. Good people! Fun at parties! Tons of great memories! Now further restrict your thoughts to what you know about their work-related habits: the amount of time, attention and effort they put into their jobs; the degree of transparency they have with their employer.”

“Also consider what it’s like when two or more of your friends simply don’t get along and there is something you all have to do together (e.g., take a trip, plan a party, agree on some sort of action plan where they show up on time and do what they said they committed to do). What would it be like if you had a full-time job and were responsible for managing your friends? And (big consideration), how do you think your relationship with your friends would change if you were, indeed, responsible for managing them?”

At this point, it was Elinor’s turn to go silent, and I began to notice a look of concern starting to form on her face. I broke the silence this time, and continued. “Now throw in a couple of people about my age —maybe even three or four — the infamous Baby Boomers! Clearly, they are at the tail end of their professional careers. It’s at least possible that some have been sales professionals longer than you have been on the earth. How excited do you think they might be to find themselves reporting to a millennial manager with four years of field experience?”

More silence.

“Now, forget about quotas and skill sets and change and all the really difficult things that are wrapped up in the more tangible aspects of managing (e.g., helping people take their performance to the next level). Think for a second or two about all the things that go on in a person’s life (regardless of the generation with which they are affiliated) that can wreak havoc on their work-related motivation and performance. Birth, death, divorce, other opportunities for them or their significant other. It’s been my experience that many can figure out a way to compartmentalize those and other similar events and not allow them to adversely impact their performance. By the same token, there are many that simply cannot.”

Stunned silence. Which I felt a need to disrupt, “Any idea why I paint this potentially intimidating picture?”

My turn to pause.

“I guess maybe to bring me back down to earth a little?”

My turn to forcefully interject, “Absolutely not! You have a ton of potential (we both know that)! You could be every bit as good a manager as you are a sales professional. But, I believe you have to know two things (at a minimum) before you commit to a move in that direction:

  1. What does managing people really entail?
  2. What kind of training are you going to receive to support that development? Make sure you know what that looks like before you take that leap because there is so very much to learn.”

Our conversation ended on a good note, and I have thought about it a number of times since. As I reflect, I am thankful. It is such an honor to work with the Chris McLeans of the world in an industry that helps Elinor (and many others just like her) get started on a path where they can help so many conquer so much. So, net- net and bottom-line, why do leadership training? Because given its relative degree of difficulty, it would be irresponsible not to!


Does your organization support the development of its managers and leaders?

  1. How does that affect the culture within the organization?
  2. If you are a manager, how do you want to develop as a leader?
  3. If you are an aspiring manager, what type of support do you want from your employer as you embark on this leadership journey?