Why The Leadership Development Industry Fails

These issues certainly require technical solutions, but they are also all, in the first instance, moral challenges that demand clear discernment of the good and the bad involved in each case, and then the will to choose the good and oppose the bad. A leader should never begin to apply technical solutions until he or she is certain that the right judgment, based on the objective truth about things, has been made, and people have been inspired to embrace that judgment and cooperate in working for the good that has been defined and justified.

While she is certainly correct to maintain that leadership development programs are often formulaic, Carroll’s opinion that “the leadership literature seemed concerned with petty organizational issues, relationships between direct reports and managers, and appeared to be obsessed with the psychology of leadership” only emphasises the degree to which leadership development is compromised by academic blinders and political correctness.

No one is ever going to tackle the big “pressing contemporary issues” effectively and efficiently until they have achieved organisational integrity and sound working relationships and teamwork, and those essentials depend almost entirely on the psychology of leadership. For better or worse, all parents, teachers, managers, and politicians necessarily use the psychology of leadership in pursuit of their objectives, and obviously, they are more likely to succeed if they have a sound understanding of that essential foundation.

Insight regarding human nature and the human condition, the truth about who we are and how we ought to live, is precisely the ground where leadership development either succeeds or fails. Leadership development that does not address worldview, culture, morality, virtue, motivation, perception, cognition, attitudes and emotion, socialisation, personality, character, and creativity, is simply not leadership development in any meaningful sense of the term. Carroll further undermines her own thesis as she attempts to give it more substance:

“It’s political work. It’s forming alliances and coalitions. It’s finding ways to speak across differences and boundaries. It’s coordinating across multiple levels, from CEOs to grass roots. It’s about multi-sector work, crossing out the private sector, working with the not-for-profit sector or the volunteer sector…Let’s stop thinking about leadership as about ‘me managing my team’ and let’s start thinking about it as ‘me in dialogue with multiple stakeholders all with their own agendas and interests and nonetheless we have to forge a way forward’.”

Politics, alliances, and coalitions, as we are all too aware, are often injurious to the well-being of people in a community, a company, or a country. It all depends on the ethical position taken by the people driving the politics and forming the alliances and coalitions. As Aristotle explained: “Virtue must be the concern of any state deserving of the name: for without this goal the community becomes a mere alliance…” And alliances more often than not exist for utilitarian purposes, and tend to collapse, with predictable collateral damage, once their usefulness wears thin.

Carroll’s call for a multi-sector focus instead of seeing leadership as “me managing my team” betrays something of the disingenuous insistence of political correctness on an ill-defined “tolerance” in a social milieu in which trust has been radically undermined at grass root levels. How on earth are we to foster healthy multi-sector relationships if we are unable, in the first instance, to inspire empathy, compassion, and teamwork within our immediate teams?

Notwithstanding her claims of ground-breaking revelations, Carroll’s views propounded in the interview, and presumably in her book, are broadly representative of much of the thinking coming out of academia. No doubt, many corporate head honchos would find her prognostications comforting, despite the fact that things have never been worse at the coalface and in communities at large.

In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article on leadership in the tech industry, Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield tackle the cultural challenges leaders face in that vibrant sector of the economy. “The tech industry’s combination of high-velocity competition, complexity, global talent, and interdependence among rivals makes it a truly unique environment, requiring a distinct set of leadership skills.”

What is of particular significance for anyone interested in leadership development is that, after their very convincing explanation of the somewhat peculiar demands of leadership in the tech industry, the two prime solutions proposed by Grenny and Maxfield refer directly to the essential cultural flaw that impacts all business categories and politics as well. They prescribe establishing two cultural norms:

  • “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.”
  • 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.”

In a nutshell, they see defining reality, up, down, and sideways, as the only way to make leadership effective in their industry. But that is true of leadership in all situations and circumstances. And it is precisely what the culture of the postmodern West stifles at every turn. “What reality? We make our own reality.” “There is no objective truth, so there is no right and wrong.” “The past can teach us nothing; we have all the answers.” “Success is the sole criterion.”

Sadly, the utilitarians are unconcerned about what is really the soul criterion, the need for meaning and purpose, and a true vision of the Good, the essential foundation for the proper flourishing and fulfilment of humanity. Until this core issue is addressed, all talk of “sustainability, social responsibility, innovation, marketplace shifts, and inequality” will be so much hot air, and the leadership crisis will continue to mock the fantasy of a technocratic utopia.

The arrogant belief that human beings can define and reshape reality for themselves arose in tandem with the rejection of the cultural heritage of western civilisation. The wasteland of state schooling denies young people proper intellectual formation by its exclusion of classic literature, history, and philosophy, imposing what amounts to a closeting regime of censorship. This is the frontline of the war between a truth-seeking, liberating, fully human society, and the cold, calculating, utilitarian mindset of the “disenchanted” West. How do we turn back the tide of untruth?

I was born of Afrikaner stock, but raised in an Anglophile colonial society that taught me to see Plato, Shakespeare, Bach, and Goya as essential parts of my heritage, and I never once doubted the corresponding value of that heritage for the African people in whose midst we lived. That heritage opened my mind to allegedly alien cultural riches like The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Analects of Confucius, and the Bhagavad Gita, and the unshakeable conviction that all people need to know the great ideas of human cultural endeavour. As prominent scholars like Christopher Dawson, Remi Brague, and Pierre Manent have so ably pointed out, there is no part of the world that has not been indelibly shaped by European modernity, which in turn, was a product of the civilisation built on the foundations of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome.

The suppression of that cultural heritage, and its replacement by the anarchic junk culture of postmodernism, has seen the emergence of an aggressive irrationalism and the recrudescence of barbarism, understood in the words of Jose Ortega y Gasset as “an absence of standards to which an appeal might be made”. Utility is not a standard since it has no set reference point other than the individual will, reducing morality to a no-holds-barred, survival-of-the-fittest, free-for-all. This is the reality the leadership development industry refuses to define. Roger Scruton, in the preface to Culture Counts, gave eloquent expression to the challenge.

“This posture of scepticism towards the classics displays a profound misjudgement. For the great works of western culture are remarkable for the distance that they maintained from the norms and orthodoxies that gave birth to them. Only a very shallow reading of Chaucer or Shakespeare would see those writers as endorsing the societies in which they lived, or would overlook the far more important fact that their works hold mankind to the light of moral judgment, and examine, with all the love and all the pity that it calls for, the frailty of human nature. It is precisely the aspiration towards universal truth, towards a God’s-eye perspective on the human condition, that is the hallmark of western culture.”


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.