The DEATH of the Leadership Program?

I start this off to provoke discussion on the evolution of Leadership development programs. Programs, as we know them today, are becoming a thing of the past. I’m not suggesting that leadership development itself, is going anywhere – it’s here to stay and is probably more important than ever. Just look around or turn on the news if you need proof that a significant leadership shortage exists in all aspects of our society. Without a doubt, we still have a long way to go to more deeply install leadership all the way into our institutions and organizations. That said, the construct of the leadership program is evolving rapidly...and that is probably for the best.

The old university model, which has informed much of the modern approach to leadership development, rests on the fact that knowledge resides in specific places and requires a learned person to transfer it from one to another. This suggests that a person has to go to where the books and teachers are, get as much out of the knowledge as they can in a defined amount of time, and then return to the real world in hopes of application and transformation. Can you spot the flaws in that logic? I would venture to guess that most of you did not have your most significant learning experiences in a classroom.

Despite its many shortcomings, this one-way approach still heavily influences today's leadership programming with 84% of organizations in our global data set still relying on formal learning approaches. (Bersin by Deloitte, High Impact Leadership, 2016) But, on the optimistic side, its inherent flaws are causing its decline as the primary development method. Why is that? First, the concept of somebody having something you need to know (they don't -- answers are all around us). Second, the idea that you can become a better leader in a week or a month or a year (you can't – it’s an ongoing journey). Third, the model of going off-site or "away" to learn (you don't - development happens all around us). Fourth, the notion that safe-spaces are required for effective learning (they aren't - risky environments up the ante). And lastly (and, in my opinion, the most troubling) that work and learning are separate and distinct activities (they are not - they can, should and need to be blended).

So why is the leadership development program - in the formal sense of the word - under stress? All the reasons above plus some others. First, considerable research shows that retention of learning is low in traditional classroom based settings and taking people away from their jobs for many days at a time is cause for concern and a distraction for executives. Next, a majority of the new generation of leaders are unhappy with the standard approach to leadership development. According to our research, 71% of millennials likely to leave their company within the next two years are unhappy with how their leadership skills are being developed. (2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey) Finally, technology is disrupting the industry and providing a better alternative. Recent advancements in learning and development platforms have made it easier to move away from the traditional classroom and instead provide on-demand, curated, virtual content and experiences to learners. This commoditization of content means that L&D organizations should be moving their focus away from content creation and instead putting it towards creating meaningful development experiences that are tailored to the needs of the business.

For all these reasons and more, the formal leadership program, as we know it, will continue to be endangered and could ultimately be phased out completely. Organizations on the cutting edge are already seeing this and are gradually replacing their traditional program portfolio with a new breed of leadership experiences. Our research tells us that a reliance on standard leadership training is an approach used by organizations considered less mature on the leadership spectrum. Organizations on the higher end of the scale are building opportunities for continuous development outside of the standard scope of L&D, such as culture and job design. And the benefits go beyond stronger leadership. Organizations that utilize their organizational context for leadership growth have 36% more net revenue per employee, 9% higher gross margin and are 4.6 times more likely to anticipate and respond effectively to change. (Bersin by Deloitte, High Impact Leadership, 2016)

So what will replace the classic leadership development program? Experiences that build in real work, risk and accountability, intentional networking, exposure, collaboration, micro-learning, and on the job problem-solving. As my colleague, and resident Leadership Development Specialist, Noah Rabinowitz explains, “The leadership program of the future really won’t even resemble the traditional instructor-led program. People will never stop coming together to learn, just not to sit in the same room to listen to the same teacher at the same time.” The experience will be more self-guided, less linear, more ambiguous, and team-based and will be integrated seamlessly via user-friendly technologies. They will be as challenging as the real job, will take people out of their comfort zones, and will use design thinking to create compelling experiences, all while putting the learner (not the information) at the center. Change occurs when there’s an emotional experience. These new methods provide an experiential journey that impacts the individual and results in real behavior change.

Ultimately, the leadership development experience of the future will need to keep up with the pace of change in our work settings and will need to prepare leaders to take on the biggest challenges and problems coming our way. To achieve this, new and experimental approaches will be necessary. The traditional top-down, one-way, knowledge transfer based program will not achieve the impact we need leadership development to have on our organizations, communities, and society. Kudos to all the organizations and L&D professionals out there pushing us to move in these new directions.

As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see for a detailed description of our legal structure. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.

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