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Leadership Development Programs – the Unintended Consequences

Facilitating leadership development programs for over 30 years, I find that clients, companies and organizations are often surprised at the breadth of outcomes. Most often, a program is developed with the client with the intent to prepare a group of high-potential individuals for leadership in the C-suite or senior leadership. Creating a “bench” of talent prepared to lead is important to succession as well as turnover at the top. But the reality is the programs also can have other outcomes for which the client may not be prepared.

Participants in leadership development programs are normally identified by the organization as best performers and have the capacity to develop the interest and understanding to lead at the highest levels. Some organizations accept nominations and others also allow self-nominations. The final group of participants is normally vetted by the client as individuals in whom they want to invest. From the group of nominees emerges three types of participants:

  1. Individuals who want to demonstrate capacity and commitment to leadership performance at the next level.
  2. Individuals who want to be recognized as one who was selected but not as interested in preparing for a new leadership role.
  3. A few who are not sure about their objective but are grateful to be included. In a few instances, individuals selected have no interest but do what they were asked.


In the best programs, the client is a partner in identifying program outcomes and developing the agenda. Assessments, exercises and discussions are generally the first phase of the program: self-knowledge. Participants get an in-depth look at themselves, their strengths and shortcomings with the caveat to develop strengths and recognize shortcomings. The result is that a few decide that they are not cut out to lead and elect to complete the program as a manager or individual contributor. Thus, identifying those who feel they do not have the capacity to lead is an unintended outcome for the client. This is an important outcome because the client can decide how to develop those individuals and, assuming they were selected for this performance and attitude, ensure they remain in the organization as high performers.

Following the discovery stage of the program, there is a process for developing self-confidence. Using cases, exercises, role play, discussions and individual work, participants have the opportunity to test their leadership perspective, hone their strengths in a leadership environment and explore the environments and situations where they can succeed as a leader. Many times, participants in this phase discover that they really like their current role and want to use the development experience as a way to improve their management skills. The issues of organization culture, environments of uncertainty, strategic thinking and conceptual development emerge as areas where they do not feel comfortable. They want to learn about leadership but do want or don’t have the confidence to take a more significant role. The client must assess whether the individuals can been kept in place.

Finally, the program introduces research skills, conceptual skills, coaching and a significant individual or team project: making the choice to lead. The project is defined by the participants or the client and is designed to test self-knowledge and self-confidence. Participants often see this as the opportunity to demonstrate that they are ready for the next level of leadership and pursue the project with energy and passion. A few are challenged and demonstrate mediocrity or disinterest by missing project outcomes. The client must help determine if the project is equitable given the other work participants are doing. Or, the drive to excel is absent and the client has a clear indicator that the individual is not prepared to lead. The program has been a screening process for the client to identify individuals who were selected but unable to meet leadership expectations.

So, as you think about leadership development in your organization, be prepared for multiple outcomes. You will have an opportunity to enhance the leadership capacity of the individuals you select. At the same time, you will discover individuals who do not want to lead as well as those who do not have the capacity or interest in leading to expectations. A good leadership program will provide you with all of these outcomes, so be prepared for multiple outcomes!

Post by Dr. Bob Taylor.




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