Why The Leadership Development Industry Fails

“I was preparing a speech in praise of the emperor in which I was to utter any number of lies to win the applause of people who knew very well that they were lies.”

–Saint Augustine in Confessions

If the first duty of a leader is to define reality, that is, to tell it like it is, then it is easy to see the reason for the global leadership crisis and the abject failure of the leadership development industry to make a difference – we live in a culture that insists that we can define reality for ourselves in defiance of objective reality. Yet the comprehension of reality is where wisdom begins, and leadership is impossible without wisdom.

The mortification of Augustine over the irony of the situation in which he was placed by his position as a celebrity speaker at the court of the Roman emperor should ring a few bells in postmodern ears. After all, in the Age of PC, who in the corporate cauldron or the political cesspool does not from time to time utter untruths in order to curry favour with the powers that be?

Playing fast and loose with the truth is a human failing well-documented from the earliest times, but in the postmodern West it has been elevated to the status of a devotional ritual that is performed intermittently throughout every day by people in politics, business, and social relationships of all descriptions. Trained to tell it not like it is, but rather as one would like it to be, or as those in authority insist it must be, most people are predisposed to say what is useful as opposed to what is true.

And so, politicians say whatever it takes to get elected; corporate executives put a spin on practically every word they speak; job-seekers unashamedly pass off elaborate works of fiction as trustworthy curricula vitarum; academics parrot the prevailing orthodoxy in their quest for tenure; and the media, mainline and social, positively revel in the post-truth atmosphere of the postmodern West.

How can a leader possibly inspire belief, confidence, and commitment in situations where disillusionment, cynicism, and self-delusion have infected most of the population? The predominant worldview in western society is neither receptive to leadership nor primed to produce people capable of it. And this is the central challenge to all leaders and the leadership development industry.

In a recently published media interview, Brigid Carroll, an associate professor at the University of Auckland School of Business rightly deplored what Harvard Business Review called “the great training robbery”, with billions squandered by business worldwide on ineffective leadership development programs. However, her own rather esoteric view of leadership provides no meaningful alternative.

Carroll, author of a new book, Responsible Leadership: Realism and Romanticism, co-edited with British academic Steve Kempster, disparages what she deems the inadequacy of the traditional understanding of leadership, which she believes focuses on individual charismatic leadership. She prefers instead to see leadership as asking the big questions, like “sustainability, social responsibility, innovation, marketplace shifts, and inequality”, and seeking solutions through “groups connecting and holding responsibilities”.

Now the sophistry employed here is typical of the regime of political correctness under which we groan, and also the very industry she claims to be debunking. When she disdains the idea of charismatic leadership, she is attacking a straw man – books repudiating the charisma model have been around for ages e.g. Built to Last by Collins and Porras, and The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner. But, more serious in view of her credentialed status, is her failure to define reality.

Her so-called big questions are not what leadership is about; they are some of the many issues that require leadership to resolve them. We must first understand the nature of leadership before we can apply it to any issue at all. Moreover, “sustainability, social responsibility, innovation, marketplace shifts, and inequality”, are nothing more than meaningless abstractions, politically correct buzzwords, as long as they remain cut adrift from objective reality.

Of course, defining them in terms of objective reality requires an understanding of the nature of things, what is good for them and what is bad for them. That alone is what will enable one to know precisely what it is that needs to be sustained and how, what actually constitutes social responsibility and according to what ethical norms, whether innovations will help or harm people and the planet, how marketplace shifts are the result of human choice rather than some brute determinism, and how we might acquire a substantive grasp of the causes of inequality and the extent to which its eradication is possible or even desirable.

Continued on Next Page


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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  1. The work, as a whole and not only certain professions, has a more or less direct impact on human life and therefore assumes, inevitably, an ethical aspect. Professionalism and ethical standards are a basis to build credibility and trust with people. Be professional, do what we have promised and meet people’s expectations (and overcome them, when possible) is an important part of integrity. Another key element of an ethics of professional work is keeping up with the times, strive to keep up to date on service and quality standards, and do our best to achieve them. This does not mean that every problem can be solved with a code of ethics within companies. Within it everyone can write what they want, and has not said that one respect it. There have been many cases of companies with perfect ethical codes, which sensationally failed. The man thinks and acts. If I think ethically that my craft is not the private affair, I realize also that I have a duty to take account of other individuals. Only in this way I will behave accordingly, otherwise I will be able to act either in right or wrong way.
    The solution, in my opinion, is the awareness that a good ethic of work is a quality that is learned and refined, just like self-discipline. An ethical value, a moral issue and the same professionalism, are not useless tools to a human enrichment, useful, widespread and sustainable.

  2. Andre: I believe that much of what I read and hear about “fixing” leadership falls in the category of treating the symptom, not the cause. Leadership is a condition based on many factors, the key one being ethics. Our lack of leadership, as proven by our “spin’ on facts and our penchant for being “politically correct”, shows that the issue may be a cultural lack of ethics. Politicians, supported by a lap dog media, have taken ethics and truth to a new low and the public has largely bought into that in recent years.

    Fix the ethics issue and the leadership matter will be at least 50% solved.

    Perhaps the main reason that Trump was elected is that our society is beginning to reject the “Spin” and “political correctness”. Trump told it the way he saw it and that resonated well with millions of people. Like Trump or not, he does exhibit leadership, and he does respect leadership in others.

    It seems to me that the bulk of what we hear about improving leadership is based on a web of theories, vs. hard fact.

  3. Thanks for your impassioned response, Rich. Unfortunately, much of what you have said amounts to mere assertion rather than reasoned argument, but let me address your charge that my “proclamation to, ‘Create a culture where anyone can speak up and share his or her concerns when it’s in the interest of the mission. Truth is power, and dialogue is the antidote to elephants in the room. If you can’t talk about a problem, you can’t solve it’, is more idyllic than rational.” In the first place, it was not a proclamation on my part, but a clearly identified quote from the HBR article by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield. Secondly, your allegation that what they say is “more idyllic than rational” is another mere assertion – you at least owe Grenny and Maxfield the courtesy of an explanation as to what it is about what they have said that you think lacks rationality. For the rest, let me just pose a simple question to you: is your response truthful, i.e. does it define reality, can it be trusted, or is it just salesmanship? Cynicism is the antithesis of leadership.

  4. Whilst “leadership” is a “situational” construct at best, “leaders” often emerge NOT as those whom best clarify “reality”, but ironically best “distort” their personal reality and manipulate those around them (staff) to achieve a means to their ends; no finer example exists today than the election of trump (a true archetype of “reality-distortion for “personal gain”.)

    Based upon my years of conduction leadership campaigns, I can attest that (1) charism-based leadership devotees exist in companies that have been unable to adapt to change rapidly or have dull “bean-counters” in their C-Suites who are severely deficient in motivating their troops to action. [People] want to have something to believe in, aspire to, or align themselves to another who best communicates that [they] can “deliver” the goods and free them from their pain- (albeit real or imagined.) For example, inhabitants dire need to save their village from attacks as Attila-the-Hun offered to do; provide “hope” in the afterlife as Jesus did; bring back the “honor” and “pride” of a beaten-down country as Hitler and Putin have used to gain power; saving “mankind” from the enemy as Truman vowed after bombing Japan into rubble; offer a “better tomorrow” as JFK did; to “think different” was how Jobs saw his role as a leader; GOP leader McConnell “leadership” strategy to make President Obama a “one-term” President by blocking his EVERY effort to reform how Washington does business” was supported in great numbers no matter how badly the U.S. suffered from his narrow-minded bigotry and pettiness; and lastly, Trump and his “Make America Great . . . Again.

    Secondly, the author’s proclamation to, “Create a culture where anyone can speak up and share his or her concerns when it’s in the interest of the mission. Truth is power, and dialogue is the antidote to elephants in the room. If you can’t talk about a problem, you can’t solve it.” is more idyllic than rational. Again, having much experience in “culture analysis” & “culture creation” business, the belief that “speaking up” is actually an “accepted” cultural value is very misleading as seen by NASA’s “leadership” & “culture ” to “not” speak of program inadequacies which was viewed as largely responsible for the in-air destructions of two shuttles and great loss of lives; the audacious foretelling of the housing collapse and eventual market meltdown was seen as “meddlesome” by the now infamous, “Too Big to Fail” boys;
    Snowdon’s release of NSA documents, VW’s emissions chip, GM’s ignition switch, Russian athletes drug cheating in the Sochi Olympic Games, FIFA’s bribery scandal, Wells Fargo’s recent banking practices, and pretty much any type of “whistleblowing” where speaking “truth” to “power” is the means to an end, often ends up badly for the teller/s of “truth” in situations when one attempts to Build “a culture of accountability—one where people hold their managers, their peers, their customers and their direct reports accountable for the commitments they make.”

    Leadership is very fleeting and NOT cross-industry transferrable. Business history reminds us of those “successful” leaders who tried their skills in other venues and fell flat or were disgraced. Apple’s top store designer who went to JC Penny comes to mind as do several sports head coaches.

    Success as a “leader” and “leadership” itself seems to attach itself to the best “salesperson”, or the one person who can best verbalize the “pain” of their constituents or fans and promise a “remedy” that may never be realized. While there is indeed an “art” to being a “leader”, leadership- in its truest essence- is most like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of OZ: one part master switch puller and two parts entertainer.

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful response and your kind words Andrew. The failure of the leadership development industry certainly does not imply the failure of individual consultants and companies, like your own (which I have previously praised). I only have to think of all the outstanding people who contribute to Bizcatalyst to know that there are many people doing sterling work. That said, the ocean of inadequacy, in which people like you and them are islands of hope, still has to be challenged and held to account. We both know the suffering and societal dysfunction that flows from the lack of leadership. Personally, I remain very hopeful, and I find many people in corporate life hungry for the truth that alone can turn back the tide of deceit that threatens all western democracies at present. It’s a daunting challenge, but I take great heart knowing that people like you, Dennis Pitocco, Len Bernat, Mary Lippett, Jane Anderson, Jack Bucalo, Ken Vincent, Massimo Scalzo, and others (I shouldn’t have started listing the names – I feel bad leaving out so many others), are confronting it with true conviction.

  6. I liked this thoughtful piece. At first, as an unavoidable member of the development industry for leadership, I wanted to qualify much of what you said. Later I concluded your frustration is mine too, I just have learned to live with it!

    I do not believe it’s arrogant to assume you can make a difference, even if you cannot entirely alter the trajectory of much of the leadership development work going on.

    My own company has a mission to “bring, humanity, meaning and vitality to the work place” and by implication help leaders learn how to do that. That we have failed in making a world movement does not mean what we do is entirely useless.

    Your central thesis that much of the leadership development activity is meaningless is born out by such basics as so many managers spouting they want an ROI on their investment in development and then refusing to pay for obtaining any evidence of it!

    Thanks for a thought provoking article.

  7. Well said Andre. However, how many “leaders” will attempt to put this into practice. Very few people dare to speak about the realities of the business and are shot down by the so called “leaders”. Facing fact is scary, and most of the “leaders” today have risen up the ranks by towing the line, not challenging the “status quo” and being “yes” men or women. Guess it will take a lot of grit to set this right (if at all)…..

  8. This is a topic that we still don’t understand and the reason for this misunderstanding is very simple, it’s based on the assumption that anyone can become a leader, that’s the fallacy and the reason for wasted development dollars. The notion that we can all become leaders is one of the most significant fallacies of the 21st century. What’s interesting is that the proof is all around us, specifically when we look to the amount of money spent on trying to develop individuals into leaders that don’t have the capacity. It’s no different than the great American lie, that anyone can grow up to be President, that’s simply absurd. Just because your in a leadership role that doesn’t make you a leader, it makes you someone that is in a leadership role, nothing more. Look to the companies where there is strong leadership and compare those few companies to the rest, it again is proof that we all can’t be leaders.
    If you look to the number of books written on leadership you’ll find as much disagreement as you will agreement. We keep searching for the Holy Grail when it comes to leadership, perhaps we are looking so hard that we can’t see the simple truth.

  9. Interesting read, Andre – thanks for posting. By chance, have you read Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Leadership BS? Like Carroll, he has some pointed things to say about the academic professions of effective leadership, and focuses not on the “what should be” but the “what is.” He encourages aspiring leaders to be realistic about what it takes to get ahead, if indeed they want to get ahead. Were I still struggling with that question, his book would make me say “I’m not willing to do what it takes these days.”

    Leadership can’t be “trained.” The development of leadership in an organization, at the individual, team and organizational level, must evolve from the real work of the organization, from exploration of what is and what can be, from reflection on what worked and what didn’t, and on the facilitation of honest dialogue and discovery of how best to more the organization forward.

    I get really scared and disappointed these days with leadership.

  10. I am of the opinion that the Carroll work is another case of “publish or perish” in action, thinly veiled by some liberal whitewash. Another example of the gruel being served up by present day academia. Too many of these people are trying too hard to prove what deep thinkers they are.