Why So Many Leadership Programs Ultimately Fail

The topic in the Executive Committee meeting turned to Europe. The technology company, Alentix*, was doing well and growing annually at the rate of about 15%. But its European division was struggling. It had been five years since the region turned a profit.

Yet no one had addressed that issue. Jean, the head of the Europe office, had been with the company longer than anyone else around the table — he had strong ties with the board — and the topic seemed untouchable.

This time looked to be no different. When Jean said he was on top of things, no one challenged him. I looked around the room at the silent senior leadership of Alentix, all of whom had privately complained to me about Jean’s performance in recent weeks. I suggested we take a 15-minute break.

Every one of these leaders was smart, knowledgeable, and capable. They’d all read innumerable books on leadership, taken leadership skills assessments, and attended multiple training programs — including executive leadership programs at top business schools. They knew as much as anyone about leadership.

So why weren’t they leading?

The answer is deceptively simple: There is a massive difference between what we know about leadership and what we do as leaders.

I have never seen a leader fail because he or she didn’t know enough about leadership. In fact, I can’t remember ever meeting a leader who didn’t know enough about leadership.

What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it.

In other words, the critical challenge of leadership is, mostly, the challenge of emotional courage.

Emotional courage means standing apart from others without separating yourself from them. It means speaking up when others are silent. And remaining steadfast, grounded, and measured in the face of uncertainty. It means responding productively to political opposition — maybe even bad-faith backstabbing — without getting sidetracked, distracted, or losing your focus. And staying in the discomfort of a colleague’s anger without shutting off or becoming defensive.

These are the things that distinguish powerful leaders from weak ones. And you can’t learn them from reading a book, taking a personality test, or sitting safely in a classroom.

Ever since I started teaching leadership on mountaineering expeditions in the late 80’s, the question of how to develop leaders has absorbed me. I’ve designed and taught everything from one-day team buildings to 30-day wilderness trips, from business school classes to corporate trainings, from simulations to executive leadership courses.

The goal of any leadership development program is to change behavior. After a successful program, participants should show up differently, saying and doing things in new ways that produce better results.

By that measure, most of what I’ve done — and what I’ve seen others do — has failed. Sure, the trainings are almost always fun, interesting, engaging, and filled with valuable, research-based content. But they fail the test of significant and sustained behavior change that produces better results after the program.

Here’s why: We’re teaching the wrong things in the wrong ways.

If the challenge of leadership is emotional courage, then emotional courage is what we need to teach. You can’t just learn about communication, you have to do it, in the heat of the moment, when the pressure is on, and your emotions are high.

In everything I’ve tried, I have discovered two things that work:

1. Integrate leadership development into the work itself. This is the ideal environment, where the learning and the work are seamless. The Executive Committee meeting at Alentix is a perfect example. That was a real meeting, where the leadership team was doing their real work. The difference, though, was that I was there.

I knew each person’s strengths and weaknesses. That’s why I called the break. During those 15 minutes, I approached several people and we talked about previous conversations I had with them and their concerns about Europe’s performance. What will it take, I asked them, for you to speak up?

Here’s what I didn’t do: facilitate the meeting or bring up the issue myself. That would have been doing their work for them and they wouldn’t have developed their skills. They needed to bring it up. They needed to push the issue. And they needed to do it in a way that didn’t alienate Jean or make him defensive. Yes, I taught them ways to do that. But they had to do it, in real time, with real colleagues, doing real work.

2. Teach leadership in a way that requires emotional courage. Most leadership programs strive to create a safe environment for people to learn. At best, they teach about courage. They articulate why it’s important, what it looks like, how it plays out in a case study. Maybe they do a simulation.

But that’s a mistake.

The only way to teach courage is to require it of people. To offer them opportunities to draw from the courage they already have. To give them opportunities to step into real situations they find uncomfortable and truly take the time to connect with the sensations that come with that.

For example, most leadership programs give people feedback from anonymously collected forms they and their colleagues fill out before the program. That’s safe.

In the leadership week I conduct for senior leaders, I have people give each other real feedback, in real time, face-to-face with each other, based on what they’re witnessing in the program. That’s courageous.

And the more they take those kinds of risks during the week — risks to be vulnerable, to communicate hard things, to listen to hard things, to try a new behavior — the more they will take those same risks in real life, when it matters most.

When we returned after the break at the Alentix Executive Committee meeting, the CFO interrupted the agenda to say he wanted to address the issue of Europe. Jean quickly stepped in and reiterated what he had said before: “We already addressed it.”

The room was silent and I could feel the tension rise. This is the moment, I thought to myself, this is the hardest point in the conversation, in the meeting. Will someone step up?

Sure enough, emboldened by our break-time conversations and by the initial bravery of the CFO, the head of human resources spoke up, followed by the head of sales, and then the COO. The conversation was happening and it was skillful, respectful, and powerful.

That’s leadership. That’s emotional courage. And exercising that muscle is what develops powerful leaders.

*Names and some details changed

Originally published at the Harvard Business Review


  1. Les says:


    You could have inserted “sales training, personal development, writing workshop” or any number of other training/educational programs into your title and hit this article out of the park.

    The growth, the break-throughs, the increases are in the doing, not the learning or knowing.

    I love what Covey said; “to learn and not do, is really not to learn. To know and not do, is really not to know.”

    This is my favorite excerpt from the article:

    The critical challenge of leadership is, mostly, the challenge of emotional courage.

    Emotional courage means standing apart from others without separating yourself from them. It means speaking up when others are silent. And remaining steadfast, grounded, and measured in the face of uncertainty. It means responding productively to political opposition — maybe even bad-faith backstabbing — without getting sidetracked, distracted, or losing your focus. And staying in the discomfort of a colleague’s anger without shutting off or becoming defensive.

    These are the things that distinguish powerful leaders from weak ones. And you can’t learn them from reading a book, taking a personality test, or sitting safely in a classroom.

    It takes courage to live a powerful life doesn’t it?

    and courage comes from practice and when practiced long enough, forges powerful habits that transcend all that we know.

    It’s in the doing, failing, learning, doing, failing learning cycle that we achieve outrageous successful isn’t it?

  2. Basil says:

    Once again,it’s hats off to you!
    I was hoping that you would include some attributes such as personal integrity and honesty but there will be another time.
    In my experience,although I am sure that he didn’t intend it to be interpreted this way, Ken Blanchard’s “situational leadership” has done more harm than good to many an aspirant leader’s decision-making capacity.
    I have had to deal with leaders/management who justifyied their questionable actions/non-actionson grounds of “situational appropriateness”, when in reality they were just gutless or needing to avoid the likely adverse consequences.
    Sadly “doing what is right” is no longer the prime driver of action nor featuring prominently in the code of business ethics…
    Doing what is expedient or safe have become the popular management mantras.
    Look forward to your next post/article.

  3. clare says:

    A wonderful article – truly hits the nail on the head. Thank you.

  4. Peter, thank you, this is a great topic! I have to admit that I am very curious to read your book as I have been on many, many leadership training in my career and i have yet to see any, any, succeeding in making a long term sustainable change.

    Lots of superficial transnational training, even if they call it deep transformation. The natural way would always come back on top. Even to the point in one instance where some of the executive players, walked the talk while playing behind the scene with the chairman, old school, to get the CEO fired.

    Also, training some, not everyone across the entire company made it even tougher as employees who had been used to see people acting in such a way, would not believe the change would stick.

    I agree with the better way you suggested to integrate leadership development learning into the work itself. But to do it in a successful manner, it has to be more than just through real conversation. Even real conversation has, is and will in many instances alienate people.

  5. Deborah Cox says:

    Thanks, Peter. Great article. From my viewpoint, so much of leadership depends on effective communication skills. Without the confidence that our “portfolio” of communication skills can handle a conversation, no matter what turn it takes, it is hard to muster the emotional courage to address a conflict, especially when everyone is feeling intense emotions. We all assume because we can speak, we can communicate. But communication competency has to be learned and practiced. Leaders need to be trained, and then trained again, in basic communication skills to assure successful management and outcome of a conflict situation. It’s a continuous learning process, as are most aspects of leadership.

  6. Paula says:

    Peter —

    Yes on both counts! Separating a leader’s development from the work itself serves neither the leader nor the organization [nor the coach]. Yet it happens all the time.

    And courage is exactly what we need to be teaching … and practicing. Your willingness to call a break, ask these execs what it’d take for them to speak up, and then let the post-break silence work its magic was its own form of courage. Thank you for modeling the way.

  7. Trish says:

    Peter-once again, an excellent article about a situation that must of us can relate to-thank you.

  8. Kym says:

    Great article, thanks for publishing!
    I was left wanting more – I would love to have known some of the actual key sentences that where used to shift Jean behaviour, what his rebutles where – and how they were handled. Although – that would probably make for a very long article…

  9. Kim Derderian says:

    The words “courage” and “heart” share the same Latin root: “cor.” Add conscious intention to the mix and it becomes vital to stand up, speak out and defend something more purposeful than ego — our own or anybody else’s. Real courage and leadership work from the inside out. When we project from a brave heart, our impact is not only contagious but enormous.

  10. Omneya Salem says:

    I work as a consultant Project Manager at an Airport Authority in Southern California. I interact with Program managers, Directors, and VPs of various departments and divisions on daily basis. I experience the leadserhip failure you have described in your article everyday. I have not attended any leadership classes or taken any formal leadership training. But, I have been witnessing the development and emerge of a strong leader, who is a senior project manager, that is doing exactly the two things that work. Just yesterday, we came to the same exact conclusion that our workplace is an on-the-job leadership application. One more thing I would like to add is the need for a leader to have a deep rooted set of values that they live by. Those values are the leader’s “baseline” that trigger the emotional courage and provide consistency in the leader’s behavior and actions.

  11. Vivek Kumthekar says:

    The emotional courage can come only when you understand u r deeply connected to all the individuals u work with .Having this understanding is as difficult as having emotional courage but these things can only work together

  12. Janis Cooper says:

    It’s great to see Peter addressing the emotional and leadership connection. In my Equine Coaching practice I use horses in an experiential learning environment to teach leadership development, team development, and personal growth. Each day I witness horses mirror the energy of the way people act and feel. They provide instant feedback when there is alignment or mis-alignment between what people are thinking, saying, feeling, and doing – ultimately helping to increase a person’s self-awareness and emotional intelligence along the way. Emotions and emotional courage are often at the fore-front of what holds us back and horses help us figure out what and why.

  13. NOTMD says:


    You continue to peel the onion ( leadership) in search of its core essence . If I may be so bold, I would peel even further beyond emotional courage. I can say what others won’t say however if I am motivated to do this because I stand taller, I will one day be standing alone. To call out the ego that hides behind the emotional courage is to truly recognize our personal frailties which opens the door to pure emotional courage.

  14. Robin Todd says:

    Peter… I really enjoyed the subject and your take on it. However, for me, the real solution was missing. What was it you advised the team members to say that would not alienate or cause Jean to become defensive? And your ending was a cliff-hanger! How did Jean respond to the comments made by his peers? What was the discussion? What was the outcome?
    As we all know, we can approach an uncomfortable situation like this one with great tact, but it’s the reaction, the words, the fallout, that can cause even the best of intentions to take many turns before an outcome is reached. And that same outcome can be perceived as good,bad, strong, weak, progressive, regressive by the different people in the room.
    Ah, leadership, such an enigma.

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