Leadership Development: Try Harder, Want it More

July 22, 2008

Leadership courses are full of life-enhancing bits of advice. Do they work in theory? More to the point, do the courses work in practice?

The other week I came across a news article about leadership. It took a very cynical view of leadership development experiences. It was also very funny. I showed it to someone. After she stopped laughing, she went off to the photocopier with the newspaper to share a little humour with her friends. That’s how word of mouth marketing used to work.

Now, so help me, I am doing the same, assisting the virus to spread electronically.


The article appeared in The Independent, [May 6th 2008] and was written by commentator Gary Mckeone. Gary had sought refuge as a journalist, after escaping from the Arts Council. As you do.

He writes from a deeply wounding personal development experience. His words make compelling reading:

…. take the leadership training course, there to make us all masters of the public sector universe. We’re gathered in a field at 8.30 one morning, with bamboo canes, a rubber band, a pencil, some string and a hard-boiled egg. Our mission – to construct a device that will propel said egg as far as possible across the field. Genius. From just such challenges are leaders forged. In the distance cud-chewing cows stare across a hedge at us. They’re laughing.

The jargon is, of course, endemic; the elephant in the room, to helicopter (apparently something to do with seeing the bigger picture) and the endless diagrams, all circles and arrows, the little yellow post-its we stick on the wall with our individual, life-changing “promise” indicating how we will be better managers: “I will talk more strategically to my staff”, “I will value the opinions of others”, “I will trust others to trust me to trust them”, “I will throw myself out of a helicopter”, “I want to be a cow”.
Enforced light relief only increases the horror. This usually happens on the last night, when a glimmer of escape fuels the frivolity. At breakfast we’re given the instruction in that “let’s-all-have-some-fun-in-a-strategic-kind-of-way” voice. We’re going to form teams, rehearse a performance piece based on what we’ve learned on our course and, after supper, we’ll perform the pieces for each other in the Rest & Reflect Room. Dear God.

Think of a never-ending nursery-school play minus the innocence. Here come five senior managers pretending to be helicopters, blades whirring, all chug-chug noises and formation flying, eyes ablaze with earnestness; they’ve gone over to the other side leaving behind any semblance of the real world; they are now leaders, their faces shining with the ardour of the convert. Their piece is a dramatization of a policy document called “Diversity and Inclusion: A Paradigm for Progress.” All irony is suspended.
We applaud vigorously; we cheer; we have to. The only way through this agony is to subscribe to the illusion. We’re all in this together. I won’t tell if you won’t. Sure wasn’t it fun? Damn the expense, we’re worth it.

Calling all leadership development trainers/gurus

There are some of us who believe that leadership develpment courses do make a difference.

Are we going to let Gary get away with this sort of stuff? One way forward is to borrow his story for your courses, on the technical grounds of prolepsis (anticipating someone’s argument to turn it to your advantage). ‘This not one of those unreflective and cringe-making courses’, you might say.

Out of the mouths of babes ..

In some contrast to the cathartic writing of Gary Mckeone, take a look at the work of someone identified only as Syd (aged 13) His inspired image seemed so apt. I couldn’t find such a nice picture involving five managers playing at being a helicopter squadron).

I stumbled upon Syd on the girlshorseclub site while browsing for images for an earlier post about intelligent horsemanship.

As young Syd (aged 13) put it:

Change is hard. Change is good. But it’s time for me and all you other riders experiencing the same thing to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s time for us to buck up and try harder.

Well done, Syd lad. At the tender age of thirteen, you have already acquired leadership wisdom, and you write clearly.

You share this month’s water-cooler moment award with Gary. Would you like to become a journalist?

Or perhaps a leadership development guru?

Or maybe put your name down for an action research PhD in business studies? There’s a nice one which is the brainchild of Laurie Taylor, Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, University of Poppleton, laurie.taylor@poppleton.ac.uk. For more information contact Dr Mary Taylor OBE, Centre for Academic Development, University of Poppleton, mary.taylor@poppleton.ac.uk.