Response to McKinsey’s Article: “Why Leadership-Development Programs Fail” Part I

February 21, 2014 by Jim Warren


The McKinsey Quarterly recently published an insightful analysis on “Why Leadership-Development Programs Fail.”  The authors cite four major problem areas and organize their comments around them: 1) Overlooking context; 2)  Decoupling reflection from real work;  3) Underestimating mind-sets;  and 4) Failing to measure results. I basically agree with the problems they identify, and my response follows their organization.

Why is this McKinsey paper important?

Without compelling evidence that Leadership Development contributes positively to the bottom line, CFO’s, CEO’s and others may eliminate or restrict funding.  Practitioners privately report being worried and concerned about the shortness of funding they are experiencing.  In addition, the issues we analyze in this paper are systemic and go way beyond the boundaries of Leadership Development.  They are pertinent to business, behavioral and technical training, organization development, and management consulting, – – They deserve our attention.

McKinsey and Company has a long history and legacy of comprehensive data analysis and big picture overviews.  In this $14 billion Leadership-Development industry, they interviewed 500 executives, all of whom rated this area of professional practice as one of their top three priorities*, with 2 out of 3* rating it as their #1 priority.

I have organized this response to “Why Leadership Development Programs Fail” into two sequential blog posts:  Part I, The Challenge that confronts us as a result of this McKinsey paper.   In Part II,  Actions that we may take to reduce risks and maximize benefit.  To simplify reading, I have removed all modifiers of numerical data (e.g. “almost”, “upwards of”, “can reach”, “around”)  The numbers quoted lack these qualifiers.

The Challenge

Issue #1  Overlooking Context

“One size fits all” leadership training in a classroom or training room that purports to improve an alphabet soup of competencies fails to provide proper context and focus.

A “Boots on the Ground” perspective demonstrates this pragmatically.  Consider the following points:

  • On January 15, 2009, Cap. Sully Sullemberger’s A320 flew into a flock of geese at 3,000 ft. over Manhattan that were sucked into both engines. Without jet power, he knew that he could not glide to the nearest airport, and that in less than 2 minutes, his plane would contact the surface of the earth, one way or the other.  Since he was over a heavily populated metropolitan area, his only option was to attempt to land on the Hudson River:  an option that inevitably causes the aircraft to cartwheel. destroying aircraft, passengers and crew. However, he was able to land on the River and save all of his passengers and crew.  In addition to being an exceptional pilot, he had had extensive simulator training as a commercial pilot and earlier in the military that had provided context.
  • The Harvard Business School has adopted the “Knowing, Doing, Being” model used at West Point.  We are talking here about “Action Skills” for “Doing”.  Cases built on real company problems, particularly when combined with visits to actual company sites, provide a context-rich learning experience.  Eons ago when I was an HBS/MBA student, my team worked on issues in a real company, and we were flown to Wilmington, DE. to make a presentation to the company Board and senior operating executives.
  • Hidden power and economic issues that are impervious to change may block or constrain your Leadership Development program. My experience here is that I can avoid getting caught up in a “Corporate Rain Dance” by working directly with the key leader and power figure.  Otherwise, the political and budget issues may overwhelm the Leadership projects and they become blocked, disrupted, postponed, or cancelled. As the ancient Chinese I Ching states,  “The town may be changed, but the well may not be changed.”
  • Social media and other abbreviated forms of communication don’t include much or any context information, and can convey a very distorted message.  42 character tweets, short voice mail messages, e-mail to smart phones and tablets, brief e-mails generally don’t included relevant background information.  In a politically polarized environment contending parties may seize upon statements that support their own positions, and ignore the inconvenient details that are there.  Often, “the Devil is in the details.”

Issue #2 Decoupling Reflections from Real Work

A class room or training room presentation or exercise generally will be disconnected totally from the Boots on the Ground realities of real work.  As a result, learning retention will be low and fade-out will be high.

Since early work with Action Learning in Great Britain in the 1970’s, organizations have developed a number of processes that enhance reflection and learning from real work.  Today, we have “Sense-making” in the MIT Leadership Model and in Organization Change generally, “After Action Review” (AAR) originally from the U. S. Army, but now widespread in U S Organization Development, and a variety of programs with the label of Action Learning.

University MBA or Extension programs that meet all day once a week provide a format that allows students to learn something new, apply it on the job for week, and then review results the following week in class.  However, this model involves many competing demands on available time and requires strong motivation and commitment to make it work.

Successful leaders with strong self-esteem and self-confidence may be able to seek feedback and may be less dependent on a formal feedback system.

Issue #3  Underestimating Mind-Sets

“Mind-sets” is a very fuzzy and loose label:  synonyms include Point of View (POV) attitude, a way of thinking about thinking, ethos, and habit.

“Style” questionnaires with verifiable reliability data give us predictable outcomes.  I have worked with Decision Dynamics StyleView™, LIFO® Strength Management, Kolb Learning Style Inventory, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Kouzes & Posner Leadership Practices Inventory, Litwin-Stringer Organization Climate Questionnaire, Schutz FIRO-B® and Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Management Inventory to name a few.  I have found each of these questionnaires very helpful in predicting and understanding leader”s thinking and behavior in specific situations confronting them.

Issue #4  Failing to Measure Results

If you review descriptive and promotional material on Leadership Development Programs you find glowing descriptions of the Activities involved, and generally no evidence-based Results.

If there are “results”, they most likely will be participant feedback collected at end of the program, or Kirkpatrick Level 1 Feedback.  This is sometimes derisively called “Smile” data.  Popular trainers and educators know how to “Game the System” to collect this feedback. Generally no data is collected to analyze improvements in individual or organizational performance.

Early on, a colleague advised me:  “Don’t undertake a consulting project unless you can anticipate at least a 20% improvement in performance. If you get less than that, your client will be less likely to believe you actually produced positive results.”  Since then, the 20% has stuck, and I tend to review research by others, and my own set of 14 exemplary cases against that benchmark.  Most good tools have validated improvements of at least that level of effectiveness. Good Performance Improvement tools are available.

Curiously, I was making just this point in an Organization Development publication some years ago, and many readers were outraged that I was relating OD to organization performance improvement.  “We work to protect the people, not improve performance” was their argument:  I think that is self-defeating and wrong, because the leader needs to both improve performance and support the growth of the people involved.

As stated earlier, the McKinsey’s interviews of nearly 500 executives demonstrated that 2 out of 3 rated Leadership Development as their #1 priority, with the rest rating it in their top 3.  Effective leadership strongly impacts verifiable results, knowledge and action, financial outcomes, and appropriate business model, strategy, technology, roles and structure, operations, culture, collaboration, conflict management, and talent management.

We simply cannot and must not fail to assure competent Leadership.

In part 2, I will identify actions you can take, tools, models, and case examples,

Jim Warren may be contacted at  He also posts to the Belcon Industries Blog


Jim Warren

Jim Warren helps clients achieve higher performance by improving the integration of people, technology and management practices. His broad functional experience and focus allows him to cover the spectrum required of the COB, CEO, COO, or General Manager. He is the Director of the Center for Collaborative Management. Jim holds an undergraduate degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. Jim Warren may be contacted at He also posts to the Belcon Industries Blog

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development

If You Enjoyed This Post...

You'll love getting updates when we post new articles on leadership development, 360 degree feedback and behavior change. Enter your email below to get a free copy of our book and get notified of new posts:

Follow Envisia Learning:

RSS Twitter linkedin Facebook

Are You Implementing a Leadership Development Program?

Call us to discuss how we can help you get more out of your leadership development program:

(800) 335-0779, x1