Changing leaders’ behavior is hard.  Public health research helps us understand how to make change happen.

Leadership is consistently ranked as one of the most important and difficult skills for companies to find, and it’s no wonder US companies spend $50 billion a year on developing leaders.  But research also consistently finds that most leadership development doesn’t work  – in other words, leaders who go through leadership development don’t change their behavior, they lead in the same ineffective ways they did before their development.

Leadership development has been a thing for more than 70 years – why does it still not work?

We take a step back and ask what we’re trying to accomplish – the goal is to help leaders change how they behave (or perform) as leaders.  It’s to help them develop behaviors that are more effective (like communicating honestly and frequently) and eliminate behaviors that are counterproductive (like yelling or withholding information).

So how do we help people change their behavior?  Surprisingly, there are few models that use research to show how people change their behavior in the leadership or learning and development research.  If you ask the leadership development world for a roadmap to change behavior, you’ll come up empty.  If you don’t know how people change – and what programs support or hinder change – how can you expect to build a program that accomplishes it?

Fortunately, other fields have made great advances in understanding how people change and the kind of programs that move change along.  Public health and psychology, in particular, have made great strides in understanding behavior change.  Public health, for example, asks how can we get people to exercise more or eat better, and how do we help them stop smoking or not text while driving.  Psychology asks, how can we help people control their anger or overcome anxiety?

Our LASER model of growth compiles research from public health, executive coaching, psychology and training to understand how and why people change.

Some of the key learnings from the research on change are set out below.PUblic health

Change is a journey, not an event.  Behavior change is a journey of different stages, starting with awareness of a problem and including stages like understanding what change is needed, understanding how to change, taking action to build new skills and building long-term habits.  Behavior change can get derailed at any of these steps – looking at the entire journey, a leadership program is only as strong as its weakest link.  A program that doesn’t help leaders at each step will fail.

Personalized is key.  Individual, personalized programs are much more effective than group programs in areas as broad as smoking cessation, increasing exercise and even leadership development with coaching.  Personalized programs both focus on the specific challenges for each person and provide support, encouragement and accountability.

Practice, practice, practice.  Leadership involves skills, and skills can only be developed by practice – imaging flying a commercial airliner after reading a flight manual but not ever taking off or landing, or playing the violin after watching YouTube videos but never picking up the bow.  Leadership is the same, only more so because it often requires people to adjust deeply held personality characteristics or responses.  Developing new ways of responding to frustration, challenge, urgency, etc. can’t be learned from a book or in a few rehearsals in a workshop, only by reinforcing new ways to respond in a focused, strategic way.

Not all learning is the same.  Most change requires people to learn – what can they do instead of the ineffective behavior, what does effective behavior look like, etc.  Programs that use learning research to provide frequent practice and repetition, personalized information and information in context are most effective.  This means there’s a place for workshops in a growth journey, but workshops alone are not as effective as fuller programs that reinforce the learning.

Emotions are critical.  People often derail in their growth because of emotions – they don’t feel confident they can succeed, they get depressed or upset when they experience failure, they get frustrated when it’s not easy.  These emotions are common in all change.  And having a program that provides support through the emotions is critical.

Support is everything.   People going through a growth program need support and accountability.  But not all support is the same.  Support and encouragement from managers and coaches, for example, is better than peer support.  And organizational support or culture is the weakest form of support.  Given the benefit of personalized and individualized programs, it’s not surprising that having 1:1 support from someone with authority or expertise is most effective.

Developing great leaders is one of the most important factors in whether a company succeeds.  But 70 years of leadership development shows that developing great leaders is hard – very hard.  And most leadership programs don’t work – because they are incomplete.  To start building a great program, start by understanding what people go through to change.  And build your program around what your leaders need to grow.


Todd Murtha is CEO of Careerwave. Todd is a former workplace psychologist and CEO of a 350-person internet company. He is a frequent speaker on leadership, coaching and technology.

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