$24 Billion Worth of Leadership Training and What Do We Get?

“Because they would do it for me.”

This was a quote from Simon Sinek from a TED speech he gave on leadership. I thought of that quote after I had breakfast recently in Singapore with a senior level HR person who told me the story of her CEO and his leadership team.

She was in Singapore for a regional meeting and all employees were staying in a 3-star hotel, which was a basic hotel room. But the leadership team, she told me, always stayed in a 5 or 6 star luxury hotel.

The other rule is that regardless of the duration of the flight, everyone must fly economy, including my breakfast companion who recently endured a 14-hour flight. Oh, need I mention that leadership flies first or business class?

What Is Wrong With This Picture?

My question that I posed to the others at the table was, “If you were the CEO of a company would you have your employees endure this type of second class citizenship.” To a person, everyone agreed they would not.

So, the quote at the beginning of the story tells it all.

I often wonder sometime what is going on in the mind of this type of leadership. Recently, as I was waiting for my car to the airport after a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, I noticed in front of the main lobby several parking spaces all painted red with “RESERVED” written in large letters. It seems that the occupants of the luxury cars parked there could not be bothered to find a space in the lot that would force them to walk a few meters more at the beginning and end of the day. Maybe it would send a message and allow them to have a real conversation with employees as they proceeded to their offices. Again, I ask if you were a leader at a company would you have a special reserved parking spot for you and your team?

Leadership Development Gone Wrong

The decision to run your company in a way that is polar opposite from these examples can’t be taught in a leadership class. This type of anchor can’t be learned in a breakout group or some fictitious case study.

There are countless seminars on leadership development and advice from countless gurus. In the US alone, a 2014 report put the value of this training at close to $24.5 billion annually. It is the No. 1 category in corporate learning and development. If we are investing that kind of money we should have engagement at record levels, turnover at an all-time low and the innovation pipeline should be brimming to capacity.

What do we get for all this time and money spent on studying leadership? If the purpose of leadership is to effectuate positive change, the answer is, “Not much.” Have investments in leadership development resulted in an inspired workforce? Again, the answer is no.

This industry that robs billions of dollars intended to develop leaders has failed the leader, the organization and society. The most important trait for being a leader is the ability to connect with people, or as Google proved in their research on leader effectiveness (Project Oxygen), it is the soft skills that count.

Leadership Traits Are Learned Young

The traits that would enable you to make decision with the primary focus being on your people and their effectiveness and wellbeing is ingrained. I doubt very seriously that it could be pounded into you over a 3 or 5-day session. These are traits that either you picked up or learned from someone early in life.

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In the sessions that I run on leadership effectiveness, each leader tells the story of someone in their lives who made a tremendous impact on their wellbeing. They are asked to develop their narrative around a few examples of how they carried this forward.

The common link in all the stories I have heard is not about some manager or boss, but for the most part, it’s ordinary people: a grandmother, grandfather, or parent,etc. As they begin telling their stories, these leaders sometimes become emotional — a voice will break, a pause will appear, and eyes will be moist all around. That, I tell them at the conclusion of the session, is what leadership is about.

“How many of you are managing people in that context?” is my final ask. The takeaway: “The difference those people made in your lives was based on building a real relationship. That is the type leader that is needed today.”

What signals are you sending out?

Ron Thomas

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.