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Why leadership training fails — and how to fix it

What distinguishes effective from ineffective leadership training? Read on to find out.
leadership training
Credit: Blake Cale; Adobe Stock

Last year, the value of the global corporate leadership training market was estimated to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 9.5%. The potential benefits an organization stands to gain from leadership development explain why — it can impact the bottom line in terms of retention, productivity, risk management, and more. 

Having strong leaders also inspires employees to live out their organization’s vision, mission, and values. But many organizations aren’t getting as much out of leadership training as expected. 

3 common issues with leadership training 

The truth is that regardless of whether the HR or L&D team has the best intentions, leadership training programs can fail to produce their desired long-term outcomes. There are several reasons this could happen within an organization. 

It could be attributed to the existing culture of the leadership team. Do the organization’s leaders possess a growth mindset, or is intellectual humility lacking? Unless a leader wants to improve, it’s unlikely that they will. Leaders must be motivated to make the time and have the patience for the kind of reflective practice that makes learning stick. 

Unless a leader wants to improve, it’s unlikely that they will.

What about the group of high-potential employees, who have every intention of applying what they learn, but then struggle to translate the skills and knowledge into practice? It’s possible that the way the program is designed could be hindering successful learning transfer

One size leadership training does not fit all. To be effective, it must be designed with the learners’ needs in mind, whether they’re high-performing individual contributors without supervisory experience, or C-suite executives. If participants don’t find the content relevant to their role and objectives, learner engagement will suffer. 

Lastly, “leadership training” cannot be presented as a one-off event at the organization but rather, an ongoing process. Formal training is only one aspect of learning. Budding leaders should be supported with systems that help them sustain all they’re learning and opportunities to apply it on-the-job. 

Best practices for leadership training success

What distinguishes effective from ineffective leadership training can be summed up in three ways: culture, content, and community. Below, we’ll dive deeper into each of these and offer best practices to set leaders up for success. 


An organization’s culture sets the tone for how leadership training will be received. This is why fostering a learning culture is so important. It provides fertile ground for the development of leadership potential and supports a mindset of lifelong learning. 

A culture of learning provides fertile ground for the development of leadership potential.

This sort of culture starts at the top and permeates the entire organization. Intellectual humility – an openness to new ideas and a willingness to admit the limits of one’s knowledge – is the hallmark of leaders within a culture of learning. The C-suite is transparent about their own learning journey and motivates others to reach their potential. And they don’t just “talk the talk.” 

Their commitment to learning is operationalized through action. They ensure that supervisors and managers are allowing employees the necessary time and resources to develop as leaders. Supervisors also recognize progress and achievements, and give employees a chance to practice their leadership skills on-the-job. 


When an organization becomes a living, learning laboratory, a community of people develops that is dedicated to supporting each other’s professional growth. This kind of support helps ensure that there are plenty of opportunities for leaders to apply their newfound skills and knowledge. 

For example, mentorships can allow emerging leaders to gain real-world experience. Mentors can share their experience and provide guidance to mentees. Coaches can also help leaders in deciding which skills they can hone further, and the steps they can take to get there. Both methods provide a solid framework for experiential learning.

Ensure that there are plenty of opportunities for leaders to apply their newfound skills and knowledge. 

According to the 70-20-10 Rule, 70% of a leader’s knowledge comes from on-the-job experiences, 20% from interactions with others, and 10% from formal training events. To create more on-the-job learning experiences, consider rotational job assignments. 

Rotational job assignments are an excellent way for emerging leaders to gain practical experience and learn by doing. This typically involves an assignment to head up a team established to carry out a well-defined, short-term project. If the team is cross-functional, the learning experience will be all the more beneficial. 

Lastly, while it’s traditionally offered to new hires, job shadowing can be an additional component of leadership training. Job shadowing benefits emerging leaders by providing an opportunity to learn new skills in a real-world context. 


When it comes to choosing content for leadership training, there are several topics that shouldn’t be neglected. For example, emotional intelligence will always be a relevant topic for developing leaders. 

Emotional intelligence provides the foundation for the sort of leadership that makes employees follow because they want to, not because they have to. Emotionally intelligent leaders know their own emotional needs, and how these needs can help or hinder them. They also know how to monitor and manage their emotions in real time. 

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The real power of emotionally intelligent leadership lies in the ability to recognize the emotional needs, strengths, and weaknesses of others. With this ability, leaders can nurture strong relationships throughout the organization that increase their effectiveness. 

They can also more easily create a psychologically safe environment for their direct reports. Creating psychological safety helps team members feel free to be themselves and make mistakes, without fear of the consequences. Signs that team members don’t feel this way include reluctance to answer questions or share ideas.

Emotional intelligence will always be a relevant topic for developing leaders. 

Some of the steps that leaders can take to create psychological safety on their teams include modeling vulnerability, encouraging team members to speak from their own unique perspectives, and creating a culture of authentic appreciation. 

For many leaders, these habits don’t come naturally or easily. It’s especially difficult for leaders who don’t feel safe revealing their own authentic selves to do it for others. Executive coach and author, Alisa Cohn touches on these concepts in the video below. 

Psychological safety begins with a feeling of acceptance and belonging, then progresses to feeling safe enough to ask questions, request help when needed, and even challenge the status quo. When employees feel that they belong, they gain confidence that their diverse perspectives are welcome and valued, and they’re more willing to speak up and reveal their authentic selves.

Final thoughts

In addition to emotional intelligence and psychological safety, there are many other leadership training topics that are essential for fostering collaboration and fueling innovation. In such volatile times, leaders must be able to build trust, manage change, and respond with agility. With these capabilities, leaders will be well-prepared to navigate today’s challenges and anticipate tomorrow’s. 

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