How to Screw-up Leadership Development

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Is this thing on?

I really want to be that motivator guy.  You know, the guy that runs around and pumps everyone up.  I want to throw those pithy motivational quotes that seem deep and meaningful, but also contradict each other.  I’d sound really wise and clever.  I wouldn’t give actionable advice, but that’s OK since I couldn’t be held accountable.


I can’t be that guy, at least not this time.  Stick with the evidence because the numbers don’t lie.

I hate to do it, but I have to throw statistics at you…

  • In 2012 US companies spent $14 billion on leadership development.
  • In a 2014 benchmark study from Development Dimensions International, corporate leaders and HR professionals were asked to judge the overall quality of their organization’s leadership.
    • 40% of leaders judged the quality as high.
    • 25% of HR judged the quality as high.

If you accept the judgement of the people responsible, then between 60% and 70% of $14 billion is wasted.

In my opinion… you C-suite people are the problem.

Responsibility versus authority

Here is how the programs are typically laid out… HR departments are usually tasked with leadership development.  This makes sense as it is a natural functional assignment since most HRs are responsible for all training.  HR comes up with a program that meets the needs of the company.  Probably the one and only time the CEO is involved is when it is time to review the curriculum.  HR hires a training company, tosses in a MBPT, a FIRO-B, a 360-review, and maybe a pinch of consultants, presto! A leadership training program.  During the course there is some classroom feedback, a few tweaks, and then the program becomes a line item during the training department’s annual performance reviews.

HR has the responsibility of the program, but, to be fair, the responsibility is functional: design, plan, budget, and execute.  Excluding the specific quality of the training classes, HR has no responsibility for the effectiveness of the leadership program or the impact the program has on the company.  Who would want to measure effectiveness and how would you do it?  HR has the responsibility to administer the program, but they lack the authority to align vision or values.

Leadership development is more than a set of interpersonal skills and small group dynamics.  I have mentioned before that leadership is a social construct between leader and their followers.  The leader/follower social contract has to begin at the highest level.  The primary sponsor of all leadership programs must be the CEO or COO.  Organizational leaders are the followers of the CEO and COO.


I strive to avoid clouding the conversation of leadership by over using the word “Leadership”.  So, the person of authority who is ultimately in charge of the leadership program leader, he/she is the person I call “the sponsor”.  The sponsor is the person with the means, the will, the resources, and, most importantly, the authority to implement an effective program.  The sponsor is the grandparent, the mentor, the guru, the godfather/mother (however you want to frame it) who guides and protects the program; and who also aligns and defends the values of the program to conform to the organization’s culture and values.

That first layer relationship between the C-suite and senior executives is where a healthy organizational culture is defined or where a toxic organizational culture begins (there is, of course, a spectrum in between).  From the topic, the culture promulgates through the organization (for good or bad).

You can delegate HR the responsibility for the function of leadership development, but you cannot delegate the responsibility for the leadership culture.  That responsibility is the CEO’s.  The only possible exception is if the CEO delegates the sponsorship role to the COO.

The CEO has to be involved and support the program at all levels with their presence and active participation.  Yes, in larger organizations, it becomes more difficult, but then the highest, senior level person possible should be representing the interests of the CEO/COO.

Let’s be honest, if HR tries to impose values and vision to a company’s leadership structure they will be, rightfully, rejected out of hand.  They do not have the authority to enforce standards on people outside of their area of responsibility.


There is obviously a disconnection between the amount of money businesses invest and the desired outcome.  The entire process is will be derailed from the beginning without the active sponsorship of the most senior executives.  The difference in HR’s perception of effectiveness (25%) and and the senior leaders (40%) is probably a good indication of who is closer to the truth… I’m guessing HR.

The goal is not just leadership development, the goal is effective leadership development.  It is effective because it not only teaches skills, but aligns everyone in the leadership hierarchy with the CEO’s values, philosophy, and organizational vision through unfiltered communication.

There are a lot of ways a program can fail, but before anyone blames HR, start at the top:  Did you do your job and take personal responsibility for your leaders and succession?

If your answer is “no”, you are screwing up the program at the highest possible level.



Kenneth Wrede

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About Ken Wrede
Kenneth Wrede