Leadership training is an industry. The problem is that all too often it over-promises and under-delivers. Over many years in academia and in practice, I listened to HR executives, CEOs and learning officers talk about leadership as vision, charisma and legacy.

For the most part leadership training has sensitized people to the importance of leadership but rarely leaves them with the set of micro-skills that really makes a difference.  The challenge for any leadership training program is to leave training participants with the capacity to do something differently. Leadership training should leave participants with a set of tools, not just sensitivities.

When people leave leadership training programs, they often have a euphoric glow that lasts through the weekend.  On Monday morning, they realize that the leadership glow is not the same as having leadership tools. Leadership training spends a lot of time trying to inspire people to be better leaders, trying to reach deep into their personality to bring out that charismatic spark.

Recently in a conversation with a group of corporate executives, I found myself once again going around the same old block.  “Leadership is an innate trait,” said one.  “You can’t teach it,” said another.  “Great leaders are born,” claimed a third.  And lastly, “Great leaders only emerge in moments of great crisis.”  They described in turn all the elements of the classic heroic leader who is called to this mission.  In this very vocabulary there is a fundamental non-democratic flaw:  This language implies that no matter how well people know their business, no matter how competent they are, no matter their technical expertise and experience, few will emerge as leaders. However, these are the exact people who should emerge as leaders.

In this day and age, when organizations operate as networks of projects, when teams rather than hierarchies dominate, this notion that only a few can lead proves to be a disaster. In the reality of corporate life, at any moment, each and every participant may be asked to lead — but sometimes they are at a loss of where to start. One executive told me, with some exasperation, “My high potentials have great ideas but they sure as heck don’t know how to get people around those ideas.”

Leadership skills can be taught. However, in order to teach leadership the challenge is to unbundle the broad leadership constructs into the specific skills of execution. In a grounded every day sense, leadership is about your capacity to get things done with others.  As such, leadership training needs to provide the specific tools to move agendas ahead.  Only when leadership is unbundled into these specific tools will leadership training be able to be aligned with the intention of the business function.  The goal is to give business functionaries the leadership tools they need to move agendas ahead. Without specific delineation, leadership training is the gift that no one refuses but one that no one embraces with enthusiasm.

In selecting a leadership program that is relevant for your organization, you want to make sure that:

  • The leadership construct is presented as specific trainable skills.
  • The training vocabulary is integrated with the business function.
  • There is a serious partnership with the top leadership team.
  • A networking training cohort is created to ensure follow-through.

While the notion of execution is somewhat less amorphous than broad concept of leadership, it is still intangible. Unbundling occurs when you convert execution into concrete how-to steps — a series of specific skills that allow corporate learners to move their agendas ahead.

Execution is about having the political competence to sell ideas, rally people around agendas, create teams, motivate others and build coalitions.  The flip-side of political competence is managerial competence, which is the ability to give feedback, enhance the capacity of others, foster the appropriate team culture, implement work design, set goals and make adjustments. With the skills of political and managerial competence, leaders not only implement an agenda, but follow it through.

In a nutshell, the day-to-day leadership of political and managerial competence is a long way from charisma and vision. Political and managerial competence might not have the drama and the flamboyance promoted by some leadership gurus, but it is realistic and pragmatic and holds the real possibility of aligning leadership with the business intent of an organization.

Once the leadership construct is understood as a set of specific trainable skills, the next step in unbundling leadership training is to integrate the experience directly with business functions. That is, in designing the training content, examples and exercises, the characters, problems and opportunities in those training modules must be relevant to the real-life situations faced by those being trained. If the program does not have immediate impact, it won’t get buy-in from the learners.

To further cement this integration between training content and business function, there must also be buy-in from the top. While learning officers and HR specialists often initiate and coordinate leadership trainings, having support from the top officers is critical to having a successful training program.When the C-suite officers are involved in the training — by sharing their support via open letter or by actively participating — the message is that the training is serious and relevant, and learners see the training as an affirmation of their value and potential to the organization.

Lastly, in mid- to large-sized organizations, it is important to bring together a diverse training cohort. Nothing is as effective as inter-group networking to make sure training sticks. This starts before the first day of training, and far before the last day of the formal program. Throughout the training, interactions between members of other divisions and departments help each learner bridge the distance and get on the same page about what it means to take charge and move the organization to next level. Let learners walk away not only as colleagues but also as peers and co-supporters to reinforce the lessons they learned and to maintain the ethos of cross-channel communication.

When selecting a leadership training program, it is essential to first unbundle leadership, that is, to consider the practical aspects of what it means to lead.  The course content should reflect the skills of pragmatic execution.  Senior management should be behind any successful leadership training. Support from the top shows that leadership training is serious and relevant.  Lastly, the training cohort itself is a valuable tool to reinforce the training.  Having a cross-section of individuals from across the organization will strengthen networks, and provide after-training support.

It is essential is that, as a chief learning officer or HR specialist, you take the time to unbundle leadership as a construct, and bring it down from the lofty adjectives and academic jargon and convert it to pragmatic execution, grounded in specific, teachable skills. Without the serious thought and effort to unbundle leadership upfront, leadership training will only be the gift-wrapped package holding only promise.

Empowering high potentials with specific skills enables them to be pragmatic, proactive leaders. While charisma and vision are conversation starters, true leaders are tested by their ability to get things done. Leadership can be learned when you break it down to the concrete steps of mobilizing support and sustaining momentum. While we are committed to our proven leadership training model, we also partner with organizations to select case studies, examples and exercises that are relevant to each organizational reality and challenges. Establishing a context for the training is the first step in helping learners take ownership of the new skills they are acquiring.