Blog Post

What Leadership Training Isn't

Teala Wilson

I have argued before that leadership training should be offered to everyone in a company (not just managers or managers-in-waiting). It sounds like a good idea, but what are my bright ideas for training courses or plans? There's no right answer, and I found it easier to describe what good leadership training ISN'T.

1. Leadership Training isn't a Three-credit Hour College Course

I am always amused at schools that require taking a class in leadership in order to graduate. As if leadership can be taught in a classroom!

(Aside: what's worse is the "ethics" class requirement. If someone has no integrity they're not going to learn it in a required college course!)

Leadership training is not a one-time thing. In fact, the main reason for "failed" leadership training is that the training wasn't reinforced. One way leaders improve is by getting feedback on their choices and behaviors from others. There must be a support structure at all levels in your organization that provides this if you want to produce leaders.

Think of leadership as a journey, not a destination. Even the greatest leaders will admit they're still learning and growing as leaders. It should come as no surprise that humble leaders make the best leaders.

2. Leadership is Not a Formula that Can be Learned or Memorized

Perhaps the term leadership training is misleading since, as one writer has argued, the word training "presumes the need, processes, and techniques...[and] is often a rote, one directional, one dimensional, one size fits all, authoritarian process."

The truth is, for many leadership challenges, there are no right or wrong answers. There may not even be "best" answers.

How do you keep your team motivated when one of the most popular team members has been let go?

How do you handle a top performer who has legal issues?

When do you decide to fire someone that isn't cutting it?

How do you bring two tightly knit teams together toward one goal?

How do you comfort family members whose loved one has to go into harm's way?

The potential challenges a leader will face are endless, are often unable to be predicted, and sometimes must be addressed immediately. There will never be a template or formula a leader can strictly adhere to when facing these challenges.

3. Leadership Training is Not Management Training

As I've said ad nauseum, leaders and managers are completely different roles. They are often confused because many times one person embodies both roles. An entire book can be written on the differences between a leader and a manager, but Warren Bennis sums up the difference perfectly in Learning to Lead: "A good manager does things right. A leader does the right things."

Management training has an important role in any organization. But it should not be confused with leadership training. For example, here is a list of some of training options listed on a website offering management training:

Time Management Training

Cultural Awareness Training

Helpdesk Training

Project Management Training

Finance Training

While this curriculum sounds absolutely thrilling, and will surely make your managers better managers, none of it has anything to do with leadership!

4. Leadership Cannot be Taught Without Experience

In other words, leadership training should be experiential training. Simply put, you must practice leadership in order to get better at it. Leadership is a "full contact sport." Like football, or soccer, or basketball, you only get better by going through reps, practicing, playing, and facing real-world situations. No one is going to truly learn football, or soccer, or basketball by studying the playbook. The same goes for leadership.

In reality, training is just a precursor to learning. As one author puts it "the more realistic a training environment is (i.e. where an actual failure is a real option) the more likely the student will be able to apply the training." It's easy to sit in a classroom and talk about what a 3rd party should do in a given situation. It's quite another thing to face the exact same situation in real life.

Ok, those are some things that leadership ISN'T. So what IS leadership training? Here are some training tips for leaders:


Give people responsibility. Put them in situations where they're leading. Yes, they will fail. That's ok because they will learn that lesson permanently (and not just for a test)


People must get constant feedback. This can be from peers, subordinates, bosses, mentors, or even themselves. Leaders get better by constantly reflecting on what went wrong, what went right, and what they can do better.


A leader is constantly striving to get better. Incredibly effective leaders are the ones most likely working to improve their leadership skills. They became effective for a reason.

Mentoring and coaching

Leadership skills will develop faster if nurtured by a mentor or coach

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