Training for Idiots: Why most leadership trainings fail


If only every training was this easy to “read.” Depressing as it is, though, a lot of workshops have a hidden disempowering script, and you know by the feeling….

Thank you, Scot Adams, for your too accurate cartoon about the disrespect embedded in many of the most earnest leadership trainings! The problem isn’t that the trainers are trying to insult participants, it’s that they aren’t bothering to teach. The result is a training that feels at best like marking time, at worst like an insult.

Most leadership trainers are not teachers, and haven’t themselves been trained to teach. They have a toolkit of motivational strategies and concepts, a passion for a message they may or may not have developed themselves, and a training structure that frames and fills the usually short time companies allow for employees to gather.

That reflects a lot of work and preparation. The problem is that trainees are usually smart enough to see that they’re being trained, not taught. The script is clear. The company’s agenda in hiring this particular flavor of trainer is also clear. So most leadership trainees become strategic followers to get through the day, grateful for a break from desks and routines, but understandably skeptical.

There are three common errors in leadership training-as-usual:

1. Exercises are delivered in the same way, no matter which group.

Each workshop has its own chemistry, so even tried-and-true exercises need to shift to fit the specific group. Otherwise, the Dilbert cartoon is all too accurate! Participants can tell if a workshop leader isn’t really paying attention to their circumstances, responses and needs. They adapt by holding back — they do what they’re supposed to do, but don’t actually “get it.”

2. The workshop leader’s agenda reflects management’s agenda, instead of being attentive to the real-life dynamics of leadership-followership in an organization.

Of course, management is paying the bills, so I’m not advocating resistance to the training goals negotiated with the higher ups. Plus, management’s motivations are generally honest and passionate — otherwise they wouldn’t want to bring outside help to their organization. But their agenda isn’t necessarily mirrored by employees — if it were, would they need a training? Good leadership trainings include an assessment of the groups needs, interests and concerns, so there can be real-time give and take, and everyone — not just the CEO — is satisfied that what they’re learning is valuable and practical in that situation.

3. Trainers present an idea, not a sustainable practice.

This is a tough one, because the leadership field is full of earnest visionaries who have had success selling and implementing ideas that impact the way business culture works. Some of the greatest ideas, like authenticity or service-leadership, have become very important in the re-tooling of organizations and leader-follower relationships. But in training contexts, we often get lost in selling an idea, and don’t have the class time or teaching skills to support embodied learning. That means even if our students “get it,” they don’t necessarily know what to do with it.

I’ve been a teacher and facilitator for 25 years, and one of the key conversations I have with any group of students is about their expectations and previous experiences in the classroom. You’d be amazed at some of the stories I’ve heard about workshops led earnestly and passionately a la Dilbert — and these are people who have well-deserved reputations as smart, articulate, widely-published experts!

It’s hard to lead a great workshop. For me, the key is respect. That is,  it’s vital to respect the participants, the organization, and above all, the process of learning. 

One comment

  1. […] That is, embrace the process of leadership, reacting to change by PAYING ATTENTION to what is really going on, before slapping on a training bandaid! […]


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