Why It’s Time to Stop Developing Leaders

We need to start developing leadership instead.

Alastair Steward
Published in
11 min readJan 21, 2022


Leadership development is likely one of the biggest, most visible priorities for professional development in your organization. But we’d guess it isn’t achieving the results you’d like it to — effective, strategic, and selfless leadership — despite significant investment. How significant? It’s estimated that organizations across industries spend close to $366 billion annually on leadership development.

Does this flavor of professional development rarely deliver on its promises because our understanding of leadership is flawed? Are we falling short in achieving development? Yes and yes. But don’t despair; there’s a better way.

Leadership as a Verb

It’s common to think of leaders as those in positions of authority. Managers and executives may have more chances to act as leaders — but literally everyone within an organization has opportunities to lead. That’s why it’s a mistake to assume only managers and executives can or should be leaders. There’s an important distinction, then, between leader as a noun (or title) bestowed only on a few and leadership as a verb anyone can embody.

Meet Stan. Stan is the VP of a business unit in an enterprise. He’s accountable for a team of direct reports who themselves have direct reports. In upper management’s eyes, Stan is a leader. His performance reviews include a leadership section and he’s got a budget for leadership training. Stan leads like his bosses: He shares slide decks with a cascaded organizational strategy; he tells his team their work is important while pushing them to do more faster; he holds them accountable by checking in on their deliverables; he dishes out praise and spot bonuses when someone works extra hard; and he spends 100 hours a year putting together performance evaluations.

Now, meet Sophia. Sophia is what her upper management calls an “individual contributor.” Her job is to solve specific problems, ones that require advanced skills, in a way that increases KPIs. She doesn’t have authority over anyone, so she doesn’t think of herself as a leader. But she’s always looking out for friction getting in her team’s way. If she sees something causing confusion, she points it out to the team and helps them get on the same page. If she notices they don’t have a specific tool, she helps the team articulate the need and make a request to a manager. If interpersonal tension bubbles up, she helps the team reflect on what’s working and what’s not and clarify agreements for how they’ll collaborate moving forward.

Who do you think has more opportunity, funding, and authority to lead effectively, Stan or Sophia? Who would you guess has received more leadership training? Who do you think is a more effective leader? Which way of showing up do you want more of in your organization?

Stan might be called a leader but Sophia is leading.

What’s Leadership, Anyway?

What do organizations investing in leadership development think good leadership looks like? Here are five assumptions we often encounter:

  • Leadership means being inspiring
  • Leadership means holding people accountable
  • Leadership is done by folks with more power and authority
  • Leadership primarily requires interpersonal and business management skills
  • Leadership can be achieved using “best practices” that work across contexts

If we take those beliefs at face value, it makes sense that helping leaders lead more effectively feels critical. And since conventional wisdom says leadership is done by individuals, it stands to reason that professional development for individual “leaders” is one of the best ways to increase effectiveness within an organization. How did we end up here?

In 21st-century business speak, leadership is provided by those with hierarchical authority and direct power over other people. Leaders are managers with a fresh coat of paint.

It’s worth reflecting on why “manager” needed rebranding in the first place. The term has significant baggage for many people because it elicits visions (and memories) of a figure focused on control, compliance, and disempowerment — someone swinging sticks (and the occasional carrot) to and fro.

As more employees have realized they deserve to be treated like adults, and that they do their best work with more autonomy, growth opportunities, and connection to purpose, the mismatch between what people need at work and what conventional management provides has become glaring. In parallel, “business thinkers” have realized that incredible business performance is possible when you unlock an organization’s human potential. Those two shifts made it clear that the old vision of “manager” needed to be retired.

The replacement that emerged in many organizations was servant leadership. The servant leader is someone in a position of authority who’s more concerned with taking care of “their” people (notice the implicit ownership language) than the prior generation of managers-as-optimizers. This might sound like a step in a more human-centric direction — but servant leadership still assumes power asymmetry, still limits leadership to the realm of managers, and is ultimately disempowering and paternalistic. (For more perspective on servant leadership, listen to this Brave New Work podcast interview with Matthew Barzun.)

Traditional management isn’t designed to tap into the unrealized resource of human potential; it tends to do the opposite. Servant leadership has good intentions but is still fundamentally limited. If we want to foster effective leadership within our organizations, we need to think about leaders differently than “manager 2.0.” In fact, the aforementioned $366 billion spent annually on leadership development is a strong signal that leadership isn’t just magically happening.

So what’s the alternative? “Out with management and in with leadership! Except a new name does not a new way of working make. We need a new definition.

Here’s ours:

Leadership is creating the conditions for an organization (and the people within it) to fulfill its potential.

A few shifts can help bring this definition to life:

  • From Leadership means being inspiring to Leadership means connecting work to purpose and impact
  • From Leadership means holding people accountable to Leadership means removing obstacles
  • From Leadership is done by those with more power and authority to Leadership is done by everyone
  • From Leadership is provided by individuals to Leadership emerges from the organization as a whole
  • From Leadership requires interpersonal and business management skills to Leadership requires personal, interpersonal, and systemic skills
  • From Leadership can be achieved through “best practices” that work across contexts to Leadership is dependent on place, time, and other context

But if effective leadership is important and a top organizational priority and isn’t magically happening, what’s to be done? As it turns out, leadership development is crucial — but only if it works.

Leadership Development Is Broken…but Not Beyond Repair

A staggering 74% of leadership development is instructor-led training, where participants are provided with training and “best practices” outside of their real work. According to a 2019 article from HBR, “Only 12% of employees apply new skills learned in L&D programs to their jobs; and only 25% of respondents to a recent McKinsey survey believe that training measurably improved performance.”

A heavy focus on upskilling only managers is one major issue with conventional leadership development. The statistics above illustrate the other: Turn-key, context-free training doesn’t work.

Most leadership development is optimized for ease of delivery (via a course or a conference) versus impact. If leadership development exists as a line item in a budget, it’s easier to check a box and say “Done” than it is to provide someone with a series of messier, context-laden experiences (and the support to learn from them) that might actually develop their capabilities. And even if this training developed the capabilities it’s meant to, those skills — like being inspiring, giving feedback, cascading strategy, building consensus, and influencing — often aren’t what’s most important for effective leadership.

The damage is compounded when managers return to work determined to lead. As they try applying the best practices they’ve been taught and find little or no positive change, they end up feeling frustrated and disillusioned. Their feedback isn’t improving performance; their vision isn’t boosting engagement; their cascaded objectives aren’t increasing alignment; and the new status reporting SOPs aren’t increasing accountability.

What might those managers understandably think when their new skills don’t work? The people they’re “leading” must be the problem. If they aren’t engaged or disciplined enough to be led, then they’ll have to be managed even more. Maybe the wrong people are in the wrong seats and they should all be replaced.

Ineffective leadership development exacerbates toxic we-need-better-followers thinking in another way: If senior managers feel the managers “below” them are failing to lead despite their training, then perhaps those managers aren’t leaders after all and need replacing, too.

Meanwhile, none of the factors that impact and increase effectiveness are meaningfully changing. Meetings aren’t more productive, innovation isn’t happening faster, better decisions aren’t being made, a future-securing strategy isn’t being discovered. The system doesn’t evolve; it trudges along with the same underwhelming results.

A Better Way

Do we give up on leadership development? Yes and no.

Yes, because leadership development that looks like training, courses, and conferences isn’t worth any more time, energy, and money.

No, because developing the capacity for leadership throughout an organization is critical for success.

The Ready’s approach to leadership development is based on these shifts:

  • From Developing the capabilities of individuals to Developing the capabilities of individuals, teams, and the system as a whole
  • From Top-down assessment and planning to Designing development efforts in partnership with leaders and teams
  • From Skills-gap analysis and prescribed training to Learning through applying new principles and practices in the work, not on the side
  • From A one-size-fits-all solution to A series of experiments to learn and iterate
  • From Following a detailed project plan to Capitalizing on emerging opportunities for increasing impact

Let’s walk through three examples of challenges our clients commonly try to address via leadership development and how our approaches diverge from the norm.

Example 1: A business unit is burned out.

Because of time and resource pressure, competing priorities, and operational challenges, teams are overworked yet spinning their wheels. This is a multifaceted systemic challenge, emerging from and reinforcing — among other things — ineffective leadership.

A typical leadership development approach might provide managers with individual time management and personal productivity tactics while also putting pressure on them in the hopes it trickles down to their teams.

Instead, we could invest time in helping managers and teams collaborate on strategy in a new way, including clarifying priorities and consenting to working agreements to resolve operational tensions. In our experience, those tactics are more likely to help reduce burnout and increase a team’s capacity for leadership via a new set of mental models, practices, and ways of working. As an added benefit, the team generates a shared understanding of what’s most important (and what can be deprioritized) across their work.

Example 2: Colleagues step on each other’s toes in some places and critical work slips through the cracks in others.

Because of unclear responsibilities and authority across roles and teams, decisions either swirl as various roles try to reach consensus or are made only to be unmade and then remade when someone out of the loop declares that they should have been involved.

A typical leadership development approach would assign a committee to craft a PowerPoint deck that “communicates” and “aligns” responsibilities before giving managers or team leads generic training on how to drive accountability with partners and empower team members individually so they show up differently.

Instead, we could facilitate role chartering sessions with managers, teams, and partners to collaboratively clarify their purpose, responsibilities, and authority. Then, we could help teams install and facilitate recurring retrospectives during which they reflect on whether the clarified team or role charter is still right for the context and whether they’re living into it. A shared tooling environment (e.g., Slack, Trello, Google Docs) could support that work to foster accountability through transparency instead of influence or top-down pressure.

Example 3: Managers default to secrecy, sowing stress and mistrust.

Because of a desire to maintain their own political advantage and to avoid difficult conversations about divergent priorities, unclear authority, and ambiguous accountability, managers are hoarding information. As a result, tensions arise in the day-to-day work, increasing interpersonal friction and undermining the entire division’s performance.

A typical leadership development approach would provide individual managers with training on how to give feedback and have challenging conversations, sending them to seminars on executive presence, influence, and strategic planning. The training would be tied together with pressure from above to “figure it out.”

Instead, we could install an operating rhythm (a.k.a, a set of meetings) to create space for teammates to shape strategy, reflect and learn, and unblock work, and stand up a tooling environment that enables asynchronous communication and zero-overhead transparency. The result? Fewer hard conversations needed, more regular opportunities to share challenges and overcome them together, a focus on shared outcomes rather than protecting territory, and technology that makes sharing information the path of least resistance.

These new ways of working focus on leadership as we see it: Creating the conditions for an organization (and the people within it) to fulfill its potential. When this definition of leadership is cultivated, there’s no limit to its reach and impact — as was the case with a recent client whose transformation perfectly illustrates what this paradigm shift can achieve:

One thing I would have never thought of doing with this collection of individuals [before implementing Strategy Meetings and Retrospectives] was ask, ‘What could our strategy be?’ Looking at clarity between different roles, asking how to be more efficient, asking how to stop the firefighting and start looking forward — that’s all new. There are things we agreed were important to us as a team and now we talk about how to make those happen. They’re front-of-mind. Anything and everything that impacts people’s performance and their leadership is now up for discussion.

Beyond Leadership Development

At The Ready, much of what we coach our clients to try is inspired by self-management, wherein individuals, teams, and even entire organizations set strategy, make decisions, execute work, hire and fire, and compensate themselves without having any managers at all. And they flourish. The Ready itself is a self-managing organization, experimenting with and evolving the practices we help clients adopt.

Self-management offers a clue to the next stage of leadership development: self-leadership. It’s possible to weave leadership into the very fabric of an organization, so that its capacity to fulfill its potential continuously emerges from the organization itself.

In a self-leading organization, you don’t need charismatic leaders, hero figures, or iron-fisted authority-holders to set strategy, ensure quality, or decide how to spend money.

In a self-leading organization, the right people are empowered and enabled to step up or back at the right time to do the most critical work.

In a self-leading organization, leadership development isn’t a stand-alone tool; it’s an outcome of continuously designing a flourishing organizational operating system.

The Ready is an organizational design and transformation partner that helps you discover a better way of working. We work with some of the world’s largest, oldest, and most inspiring organizations to help them remove bureaucracy and adapt to the complex world in which we all live. Learn more by subscribing to our Brave New Work podcast and Brave New Work Weekly newsletter, checking out our book, or reaching out to have a conversation about how we can help your organization evolve ways of working better suited to your current reality.

Work and feedback from Sharan Bal, Zoe Donaldson, Jurriaan Kamer, Ali Randel, and Sam Spurlin made this article much better than it would otherwise have been.



Alastair Steward

Org Design & Transformation @ The Ready. Complexity enthusiast. Advocate for helping people and systems fulfill their potential.