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Wasted Dollars: Perception vs. Evidence of Leadership Training

Leadership development can, and often does, fail to live up to expectations. And even when it is successful, it does not mean that it is a cure-all for what ails an organization, nor can it ‘fix’ a horrible leader. So, what is it good for? When does it work? And when does it fail? Understanding the answer to these questions is critical to the success of organizations and for proper investment of training dollars.

A recent and impressively comprehensive ‘meta-analysis’ study, which integrates findings from hundreds of other studies, points to some interesting answers to these questions.

Some senior executives tend to be highly skeptical about the effectiveness of leadership training, and have publicly suggested that it is a waste of money. If they think it isn’t working, then, perhaps it is not. But what does the evidence from carefully designed studies in the real-world suggest?

One key finding is that – when you look at actual performance data of leaders and their teams and organizations, and the perceptions of their direct reports and even the leader’s boss -- leadership training has a net positive effect that is much larger than the skeptics would have you believe. In other words, it tends to work, and, on average, has a meaningful impact on a whole host of important organizational results! So why the disconnect between what some executives think and reality? We don’t know for sure, but it probably has something to do the fact that all of us are pretty bad at estimating ‘change’, even in ourselves, nevermind when seeing change in someone else. Of course when someone makes a massive shift we usually notice it, but in many cases meaningful positive change may go unnoticed until you actually examine the data.

One additional factor may be that all leadership development training is not equal – and poorly designed programs don’t work nearly as well (and may even fail spectacularly). What makes a leadership development program more likely to succeed? Solid evidence shows us: First, you can’t just make it about sending a few individuals in your organization to a training program for a few days and then expecting miracles when they come back to an organization that may not even allow them to practice or fully implement what they have learned. Creating more effective and robust leadership in your organization takes time, effort, and culture shifts. Second, off-site training is only PART of creating a robust leadership development program. For it to really be boosted, organizations need to create mentoring networks, challenging work assignments, executive coaching, and ensure that the training meets the needs of where the current leader is at.

Creating leadership capacity in organizations is hard work – but it absolutely can and does move the  needle for individual leaders, their direct reports, and even their organizations. At the FIU Center for Leadership – seeing and knowing this is what drives us to create practical and evidence-based leadership programs that are part of an individual’s (and organization’s) journey to continual growth and success.


About the writer

Nathan J. Hiller, Ph.D.
Academic Director
Associate Professor of Managment and International Business