The Number One Mistake of Leadership Development Programs

We often forget about this crucial element in developing leaders.

Posted Sep 14, 2018

Did you know that the U.S. spends billions of dollars a year trying to develop better leaders in the workplace? The focus in these programs is typically on the development of particular leaders’ skills and competencies. The idea is that more skilled and better-prepared leaders will create more effective organizations. But there is one problem with the vast majority of these programs. They leave out a very important element–the followers.

Leadership in organizations happens when leaders and followers work together to create leadership. In our work in leadership development, we often turn a blind eye to the role that followers play. A leader without engaged and committed followers will not produce leadership. It takes both.

My colleague, David Day, has made a clear distinction between leader development–which focuses on developing individual leaders' skills and competencies–and leadership development, which tries to build the shared leadership capacity of the leader and the members of the work team. We focus nearly all of our energy on leader development, and this is where we fall short.

All too often, in both leadership development programs and in the study of leadership, we neglect the key role that followers play in the equation. I find myself doing this when teaching students about leadership—we over-focus on the importance of the leader and what the leader does. Rarely do we give serious attention to the role that followers play -- are they merely being obedient followers, passively going along, or do they question the leader and hold the leader accountable.  

Engaging followers and developing their capacity to work with leaders and together co-construct “leadership” is going to be a more successful strategy.

So, sending leaders off to training without considering the part that followers play in the leadership equation can be problematic. It develops the individual leader, perhaps, but doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be an improvement in the team’s or organization’s leadership. The best leadership development programs take into consideration what will get followers to contribute to the leadership equation.

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Day, D.V. (2000). Leadership development: A review in context. The Leadership Quarterly, 11, 581-613