Developing leaders in business of any size | Contributor

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal

Every business needs leadership in some make, manner or form. When you ask business owners how they might define leadership, you’ll get a range of answers. But on one thing, you’ll almost always get agreement—more leadership is needed and our business would be more successful be if we had more leaders.

Personally, I am not sure that the problem we are trying to solve has been properly defined. That’s a problem, itself.

That leadership is always in demand has historically led to a discussion of whether leaders are born or made.

Based on the amount of money currently being spent on the development of leaders across the country, it is safe to say that there is no longer an argument. It is settled. Leaders can be made, based on the investment.

U.S. companies increased leadership development spending 14 percent over 2011 levels to an estimated $13.6 billion in 2012, according to Bersin and Associates. If you contrast that with the money being spent on employee engagement, you’ll find the “spend” is about 13-to-one in favor of leadership development.

Business leaders vote with dollars, and right now, hands down, leadership development is the favorite.

If you’re a larger employer, you may have become accustomed to line-items in your budget that amount to average annual investments like $1,700/first-line leader and $2,700/mid-level leader. By contrast, owners in smaller businesses have a hard time justifying that kind of spending on their own development or training—never mind their managers.

So based on the dollars spent, you might come to the conclusions that either you’ll have to wait until you’re a large company with lots of discretionary money to be able to afford to develop the leaders you need, or that the way to get big is to start spending on leadership development now.

Neither really seems very satisfactory.

In my opening paragraph, I hinted at my belief that the problem that needs solving has not been properly defined. I believe the answer lies somewhere outside the realm of current management thinking, which is still dominated by command and control models, and rather somewhere closer to work currently being done on employee engagement,though there is a lot of command and control there as well.

Mike Myatt, a contributor to Forbes, wrote a pointedly critical piece last year in which he was very blunt about his opinion that much of what was being passed off as leadership development was, in fact, training.

According to Myatt, “When it comes to leadership, the training industry has been broken for years. You don’t train leaders, you develop them—a subtle yet important distinction lost on many. Leadership training is alive and well, but it should have died long, long ago.”

After reading Myatt’s piece, which I agree with, I once more began thinking about why leadership spending far outweighs that on employee engagement. My guess, and that’s all I have to go on, is that the programs being invested in somehow mirror the command and control models most business leaders are familiar with.

“Leader” still equates to authority in the minds of many senior managers making these decisions, and so the world still looks familiar. For most business leaders, I still think engagement is too “squishy,” moreover lacking in control, which it is, of course. And that’s where its power comes from.

Business leaders normally prefer the control/force model to the initiative/power model. Not because they are bad people, but because they are normal.

But there is some good news here, especially for smaller employers. I am in full agreement with Myatt when he writes, “Don’t train leaders, coach them, mentor them, disciple them, and develop them, but please don’t attempt to train them.”

When it comes to developing leaders, you’d think we were breaking horses: a continual focus on indoctrination in process, technique and systems. No wonder budgets are so high the leadership training. We need to build fancy pens to herd leaders into, feed them three times a day and keep them away from the other horses long enough to get them to see things our way—the right way.

Am I being overly harsh? If you work in a big company, you tell me.

For larger employers, it may be time to stop doing much of what you’ve been doing. For smaller employers, take heart. Your path forward may be easier.

Real development doesn’t have the price tag that training does. But, you need to get involved, as coach, mentor and sponsor.

As Myatt writes, “Development is nuanced, contextual, collaborative, fluid, and above all else, actionable.”

It won’t be free. You have to be willing to invest your time, and that is precious. But maybe you’ll learn something yourself along the way.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. He publishes a weekly blog at


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