Why Leadership Development Courses Do More Harm Than Good

Why Leadership Development Courses Do More Harm Than Good

Leadership development

Leadership development programmes are probably one of the most popular forms of development for aspiring and active leaders. Their aim is to make leaders more conscious of the impact they can have and equip them with the tools of leadership. A recent study examining the impact these programmes have has discovered that the programmes may actually not have the outcomes intended…

Leadership development industry

It is estimated that the leadership development industry is worth over $170 billion annually. Obviously, it is anticipated by organisations and leaders who are investing in such programmes that there will be a significant return on investment. They would anticipate enhancement of leadership knowledge and skills, greater alignment between the leader’s and the organisation’s aims and ethos, as well as greater commitment both to leadership practice and the organisation.

However, there has been a significant amount of research showing that management and leadership programmes can have a range of unintended consequences, including increased participants’ feelings of alienation and disengagement from their host organisation.

What management and leadership programme are meant to achieve

One of the things that management and leadership and programmes is meant to achieve is that the participants gain an increased sense of identity as a leader, as well as increasing their levels of self-reflection, critical thinking and purpose.

Leadership Development
Leadership Development Programme

A new study on leadership development programmes

A recent study by a team of researchers from the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark Lund University in Sweden and Lancaster University Management School in United Kingdom has looked at what the unintended consequences and outcomes of management and leadership development programmes actually are.

This study was based on a series of longitudinal interviews of management and leadership development programme participants.

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Findings on leadership and management programmes

The study found that, as participants’ understanding of both leadership, organisational capability and themselves through critical reflection increased over the period of the management and leadership development programmes, so did their sense of disenchantment and disengagement from their home organisations.

When management and leadership development programme participants re-entered the organisation what was frequently found to happen was what is known as a heroic , or Messiah, dialogues , in which participants saw themselves as being on somewhat of a quest in which they attempted to influence others, particularly their own line manager with the thinking, logic and skills they had developed as part of the programme process. It was found that the outcome of these heroic and Messiah dialogues predicted whether or not the programme participants ended up feeling more distanced from their colleagues and organisations.

Leadership development
Learning to be a leader?

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More Findings

Additionally, it was found that leadership development programme participants acquired new language and ways of articulating issues whilst on the programme which were generally not shared within the organisation. This shift in language and articulation capability often serves to create a situation where programme participants can feel increasingly alienated from their home organisations.

In effect, what the study found was that there is little or no attempt by either the organisations or the providers of the management leadership development programmes to create a process whereby the programme participants are able to become aware of, think through and develop effective strategies for dealing with their reintegration back into the organisation.

As a result, a number of management and leadership development programme participants (approximately half in this study) were found to feel a greater sense of disengagement from their home organisations and the people within it as a direct result of the disparity between their development on the programmes and the lack of development the organisation had undergone in its thinking and activities over the same period of time. In effect, the participants’ development ended up creating a significant paradox for the participants as they re-entered the organisation.


Larsson, M., Holmberg, R., & Kempster, S. (2020). ‘It’s the organization that is wrong’: Exploring disengagement from organizations through leadership development. Leadership, 16(2), 141-162.

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David Wilkinson

  • Fraser Murray says:

    I’m trying to find research from The Oxford Review in relation to the impact of “Leader Character” on organisations. Is there any?

  • Sneha Moorthy says:

    Workforce decisions based on gut instincts won’t take your business very far. Make the smart choice by investing in an HR analytics software that give you workforce analytics backed by real-time and accurate data.

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