Let’s rip the bandage off: the clear majority of leadership development efforts are an abject failure. 

Since 1986, in one form or another, i4cp has conducted a “Critical Issues Survey” to determine what human capital topics were the most critical in major organizations, based on an index that takes into account both the importance and effectiveness of nearly 90 human capital issues. Every year, with unbelievable consistency, approximately 85% or more of the participants ranked leadership development as “high or very high” in importance for their companies. 

And every year, 25% or less reported that their organizations managed leadership development effectively.  

Phrased another way: for 30 years, leadership development has been ranked either #1 or #2 on i4cp’s “critical issue index”—there has been absolutely no movement despite massive investments in leadership development—it’s a multibillion dollar industry that apparently has little effect. 

So, I ask why? Despite investing so much valuable time and money, where are the results? Here is where I’m probably going to get into trouble with corporations: I think that we’ve been overly obsessed with leadership competencies, attributes, or characteristics, and that’s why development efforts suck. To break it down: 

  • Most companies have looked at the laundry list of competencies and narrowed the list down to approximately 10 for their organizations.
  • Then all good HR folks build a list of behaviors for each competency, and on average there are five behaviors for each leadership competency.
  • Then they have to level-set the behaviors to fit the various levels in the organization and for most large organizations there are five levels of leadership.
So let’s do the math: 10 competencies, five behaviors for each competency and five levels of behaviors to fit the organization—that equals 250 separate items for the leadership development program. Two hundred and fifty.

Are you kidding me? How much money, time, and energy is devoted to identifying high potentials, conducting assessments, performance reviews, coaching, providing formal and informal development opportunities, and struggling to measure and reward all those items?

Here’s my crazy, ridiculous, radical (dare I say common sense?) recommendation: Slow down, get rid of the competencies, attributes, and characteristics of leadership and simplify it to focus on what we expect from leaders at all levels—and everyone should be considered a leader, by the way. Fixate on outcomes— what they do, and how they do it—in these five areas, which is all we need to measure and reward: 

  1. Executing the strategy
  2. Being customer centric
  3. Supporting an agile culture
  4. Being developers of talent
  5. Ensuring that their direct reports are engaged and aligned to the strategy, customer, and culture.

Billions of dollars have been invested in leadership development, but most companies still suck at it. If yours is one of them, think about it, consider your current investments of time, effort, and money and the results of those. Now ask yourself if my recommendation to simplify makes sense. I’m willing to bet it does.

Jay Jamrog is i4cp’s co-founder and SVP of Research.