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Why short courses fall short when it comes to leadership development

By Sam Bell FIML


Translating learning into behavioural change takes time and a lot of effort. Even more so when it comes to learning crucial skills that impact people. Skills vital to effective leadership such as time management, communication, emotional intelligence, influencing colleagues, motivating teams, nurturing high-performers and driving innovation require more than just a couple of days in a classroom. You’re simply not going to change someone’s behaviour by sending them on a two-day short course.

Unsurprisingly, only 10% of CEOs surveyed by McKinsey indicated they are confident their leadership development efforts would make a positive impact on their business.

It’s astonishing then that the market remains awash with ‘quick-fix’ and one-size-fits-all programs that promise to transform leaders after just a few days inside a classroom. To understand if there’s any merit to these claims, we need to understand the complexity of the learning process.


The birth of a myth

The concept that forming new habits takes just 21 days is a myth based on misinterpretations of the published work of Maxwell Maltz. The plastic surgeon famously observed that it took his patients at least 21 days to get used to any physical changes to their body.

The latest research shows that it takes at least 66 days to form a habit or change an existing one. Sadly, that realisation came too late and many programs, courses and self-help formulas are based on this 21-day myth. In fact, some courses promise to create new managers and leaders by sitting in a classroom for two days!

Additionally, leadership development is about a lot more than merely forming new habits. It involves deep learning and shaping the type of people who will act as a catalyst for positive organisational change.


Consuming versus cultivating

Another issue with the typical short course or program offered to today’s leaders is the fact that often it is heavily reliant on passive learning – or as some would say a strictly ‘teacher and classroom’ format.

In fact, adult learning principles backed by neuroscience indicate that leaders develop key capabilities not just by reading or hearing but by doing. What is required goes beyond just talking about the capabilities. Leadership development should involve dealing with real problems while applying new knowledge in a specific context.

Simply put, rather than consuming information leaders need to cultivate knowledge and skills. This is something that a typical classroom-based, short-course just cannot achieve.


Rigour not repetitions

Interestingly, recent research by Johns Hopkins University goes against another well-accepted belief that repetition is the best way to learn. This research reveals that the process called ‘reconsolidation’ – in which existing knowledge is recalled and modified with new knowledge – significantly improves the way participants learn motor skills.

Taking that principle and applying it to learning leadership capabilities for experienced professionals provides an insightful development solution. Leaders who seek development take with them a unique set of skills, a wealth of knowledge and a roster of experience. This is not about starting from ground zero, so the focus is building upon existing capabilities. To illustrate, leadership development doesn’t involve infants, so there is no need to repeat information.

What is needed, as pointed out in the research, is to reconsolidate. Modifying already learned skills and behaviours to adapt to new challenges.

To do that, leaders need to identify where they are at and what they would like to achieve. This should not be amalgamated for the entire class – this must be a personal, targeted analysis. Your challenges, organisational goals and experience will never be the same as the person next to you. There is no one-size-fits-all. This clearly cannot be addressed without courses incorporating a one-on-one element, either through coaching, mentoring, self-assessment or individually focused learning outcomes.


Assess the value of leadership development programs

It’s unwise to invest in your development as a leader on a program that offers little value. Unlike a physical product, it isn’t always easy to evaluate a course’s worth. However, based on our analysis of what it takes for leaders to gain an in-depth development of their capabilities, you can assess programs based on their format and learning outcomes.

Before you book yourself in another leadership development program, ask yourself:

  • Will the allocated time for this course or program allow me to learn my required capabilities deeply?
  • Does the format of this course or program involve simply classroom-based learning, or does it have elements of practical application and personalised development?
  • Will this course or program provide me with the opportunity to assess the unique context in which I, as a leader operate within? Will it then equip me with the strategies to adapt my existing knowledge, skills and experience to lead effectively in real-world situations?

The answers to these questions impact not only your development but also your influence as a leader. If you aren’t moving forward as a leader, you risk falling behind and taking your team and organisation with you.

Become an intentional leader

IML ANZ offers leadership development programs that provide managers with the skills, knowledge and support to become intentional leaders. 

Intentional Leadership Foundations: This program is designed to help ‘accidental managers’ become intentional leaders – helping them transition from individual contribution to succeeding through their team. The 12-week program blends facilitated learning with online study, leadership coaching, one-on-one mentoring, diagnostic tools and workplace-based projects.

Intentional Leadership Accelerate: This program supports managers of managers on their intentional leader journey. It focuses on the core skills to become a confident leader of managers and advances career progression. Upon completion of the program, you will have the opportunity to be accredited as a Chartered Manager, the highest status that can be achieved as a manager and leader.


Offer Ends 30 June 2024

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