Leadership Programs – The Autopsy

City Morgue (0)“Cause of death?”

“The heart stopped.”

If you are a CSI fan, a fan of the spinoffs, forensic or crime documentaries, or any other show or movie of the genre, you’ve probably watched hundreds of hours of forensic science.

You’re practically a coroner!

Forget all of the testing, the gruesome details of each case, the motives, or the means; the cause of all deaths come down to one final outcome…

The heart stopped.

I can’t say that I have seen hundreds of leadership programs, but I can say that I have been responsible for sponsoring and building, maybe, ten programs from scratch.  I’ve been exposed to others (maybe 30) in an advisory role or as a participant.

In each case, the success or effectiveness of leadership training came down to the question “was the heart still beating?”

Life support

HR is usually tasked with the leadership development program.  This is totally appropriate because it falls into several HR related categories: training, recruitment, retention, and succession.  In other words, they already have the infrastructure to plan and execute what is just another professional training program.

I call them “life support”.  Like one of the ventilator machines in a hospital, HR can continue blood flow and oxygen levels, but there is no quality of life.  Unfortunately, leadership development is not “just another professional training program.”  It is the continuity of the organization.

Like the Tin Man in the movie, a leadership program needs a heart.

The heart

Who is really responsible for an effective leadership program?

Every leadership program has to have a sponsor and the sponsor has to be from the top executive management: the CEO or, as a minimum, the COO.

Leadership is not only about communications skills and small group dynamics, those are classes HR can provide.  Leadership is the opportunity to proliferate the corporate culture and values to the rest of the company.  It is obvious to everyone if the senior leadership does not care or pays lip service to corporate ethics or values.  Mission statements and corporate values are just blanks to be filled in for the business plan.

HR can maintain the functions, but the engagement of C-suite is the heart and breathes life into the program.


Leadership development, at its highest levels, has three purposes: promulgate a healthy organizational culture, develop critical thinking skills, and prepare all leaders at every level to persevere through periods of uncertainty.

The C-suite is the key to this: leadership by example.  They have to convey to all other leaders the importance of culture (for example: vision, ethics, company values, transparency, sustainability, etc.), a commitment to critical thinking, and confidence in volatile times of change.

The point of a leadership program is to make sure that the delegation is effective.  The CEO does not have to personally supervise everyone every day.  The subordinate leaders Must actively and tacitly understand the intention of the C-suite, then priorities, organization, and daily operations flow from there.

It is not about executive level buy-in, it is about active ownership.

The good parts

HR can support leadership skill development and create a framework for managerial tasks.  They can craft a foundation for managers and supervisors to become leaders.  They can also assist in expectation management of new employees as they will have their own role in communicating the company culture.  HR’s limit is transactional.

They can handle the logistics and the basic training.  But at a more advanced level, let me just say, if I have to participate in another trust fall, fire-walking confidence course, or pressure-testing leadership exercise, I may volunteer myself for the autopsy table.

Just a quick note about those exercises… I teach a self-defense class.  I spend a majority of the time deconstructing the myths of self-defense and teaching people how to recognize a confrontation building up in near them and avoid it.  Out of the four hours of instruction, 30 minutes is devoted to dealing with the crisis with just enough skill to create an opening and make an escape.

Does it really make sense to spend 90% of your training time and budget on something that, in reality, cannot be applied?

“The best wrestler,” he would say, “is not he who has learned thoroughly all the tricks and twists of the art, which are seldom met with in actual wrestling, but he who has well and carefully trained himself in one or two of them, and watches keenly for an opportunity of practising them.” — Seneca, On Benefits, vii. 1”

The courses I mentioned above are interesting and there is an insight to be experienced, but each exercise accounts for a very small and limited aspect of leadership.  The emotional value placed in the activity is way overblown for the actual, practical return on the cost.  For the expense and hassle of a quasi-mystical, fire-walking confidence course, I would much rather spend the same time (and less money) expressing and discussing corporate culture; and how we effectively proliferate those values to our people.

We could spend some of the saved money on a BBQ.  That way, the smell of cooking meat wouldn’t be my feet.

Responsibility and sponsorship

Some CEOs delegate the responsibility for leadership development to HR.  They abdicate the program fully with no thought to the consequences.  The HR people, want to be helpful, so they accept the task as a part of their role as trainers.

HR can really only be responsible for the logistics and structure of program.  Like a ventilator, they have a sustaining role, but if you want quality of life, you need a healthy heart.

The truth of the matter is that giving HR the responsibility for the program is not the same as giving HR the authority.  Yes, they have the responsibility and authority to manage the program, but HR does not have the authority to define culture or tell the other leaders how to think.  Nobody would accept that.  At best, your program is ineffective.  At worse, you have a recipe for mutiny.

The C-suite has to deliver a sponsor and the sponsor has to be involved with every stage: vision, planning, implementation, and participation.  The active participation and sponsorship of the CEO immediately conveys the message that good leadership is valuable and important to the company.


The commitment of the CEO or COO is the heart to the leadership program.

The C-suite is responsible for the success by giving their vision, time, and participation to the program.  Their engagement is so important that it determines the program’s failure or success in terms of strategic value.

If C-suite does not recognize their responsibility, the sophisticated HR person is placed in the awkward position and has to manage up.  I know that is not always easy, but there must be a sponsor.  Life isn’t always perfect and sometimes HR needs to train their bosses too.

A strong leadership program will create value with employee retention and corporate agility or mitigate value destruction in disruptive times.  The failure of a poor leadership program can be quantified by destruction in corporate value measured in employee turnover, lost opportunities, and floundering change management.

Get the heart beating and give the gift of life to your company.  Success will be found by molding an inclusive, healthy organizational culture and long-term sustainment even during volatile periods.

CPR is not a way of life.

Let’s avoid this question:  Time of death?


Kenneth Wrede












About Ken Wrede
Kenneth Wrede