Can You Really Change People Through Leadership Development?

Can you really change people through leadership development? Well, if you think about the leadership qualities of some of the leaders you know who have been through typically ineffective leadership development programs you don’t need me to answer that question for you.

I'm going to share a story within a story today that addresses some of the most fundamental questions in leadership development:

  • Can you change leaders’ behavior?
  • Can really bad leaders change?
  • Can you change a leader’s heart and really make the change stick?
  • How long should leadership development last?

My story begins. I'm sitting in the boardroom of a large healthcare company. The senior leadership team surrounds me. They are looking more than a little skeptical. The CEO, whom I had done some other work for, had asked me to talk to his team about how I could help them create a leadership development program that would teach the right leadership skills to all managers.

I was being hit with comments and questions like; “leadership development is a waste of time” “I’ve never seen management development work” “Who cares what leadership style you have, just get the work done”

Then this gruff senior Vice President challenged me with “Do you really think you can change the heart of a leader? I mean you might get them to nod their head “yes” that certain leadership styles are more appropriate than others, but at the end of the day they are going to keep doing the same things they have always done. So, answer my question, do you really think you can change a leader’s heart?”

I looked at him and said; “I don’t know and I don’t care and neither should you. But, let me tell you what I do know. The right kind of management training can change behavior and make it last…well, sort of. Let me tell you a story.”

Turn the calendar back 10 years from the boardroom we were all just in. I was with a brand new client. I was at the beginning of a leadership development program for more than 250 leaders. I had started with the top dozen or so leaders.

I had just received the results of a leadership skills survey and was meeting with each executive to give them the feedback and discuss their management development plan.

One of the senior executives had been there for years.  He loved to put people on the spot in public and make them twist while he blasted them. He had orchestrated the firing of scores of leaders just because he was in a battle with their bosses. He was a tyrant, plain and simple. His survey results included this comment from one of the staff; “He can suck the soul out of a person and enjoys doing it.”

Against all expectations his behavior began to change for the positive. He began to call himself “Good Robert” (name changed to protect the guilty!) and so did other people. In fact, at a social event his wife took me aside and said; “I don’t know what you’re doing with him at work, but keep it up!” And here is the amazing thing, his behavior stayed positive for 6 years!

So there are the answers to the first two questions I posed at the beginning of this article. Can you change leaders’ behavior? Absolutely! Can really bad leaders change? Yes, again!

But what about that next question; Can you change a leader’s heart and really make the change stick? The change stuck for 6 years. But, then the hero of our story left to become a CEO at another company. He called me to say; “I just wanted to tell you that I always hated that management training program and I’m not going to hire you to help me here. I’m going back to being “Bad Robert.” I always like being “Bad Robert” and that’s who I’m going to be!”

Did leadership development ever change Robert’s heart? No, it did not. But it did change his behavior for 6 years. Which leads us to the answer to our last question, how long should leadership development last?

Forever. It is something that every leader needs to do for them and every organization needs to do for all of its leaders. Why? Because, while Robert’s behavior was extreme his tendency to fall back into bad habits is neither extreme nor unusual. We all have that tendency.

But we can avoid that trap by continually focusing on the specific leadership qualities we want to exhibit. Excellent leadership development applied consistently over time will allow you and every leader in your organization to keep that focus.

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