Most Leadership Training is 21st Century Quackery

On December 27th, 2019, posted in: Blog by

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I attended a Western embassy’s networking event where they matched 20 Western trainers with 19 local Malaysian trainers + me. The Western trainers’ goal was to expand their business into the Malaysian training market. The Westerners, except me, were well-dressed, bright-toothed and, frankly, beautiful. Not a one was bald, overweight, or grey haired– like me. They reminded me of televangelists. When I asked what they trained each said, “Leadership.”

When I asked what is leadership training? The responses diverged greatly. Some said to manage people to achieve business targets. Others to develop people to achieve targets. Others to teach people to build a respectful work environment to achieve targets. Others to motivate or inspire. But I wondered aren’t good supervisors supposed to do all these?

As a trainer, because I can’t properly define what is Leadership training, I don’t do it. I will do supervisory training, though. But I see lots of unscrupulous people running ‘leadership bootcamps’, ‘institutes’, and ‘centres’. They charge a bomb.

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I DON’T believe leadership skills can be trained to adults. If you can’t lead by the time you are a young adult, even if it’s just leading yourself, then how can you lead later in life? Greta Thunberg, though only 16, is a good leader. Donald Trump, to me, isn’t a good leader. Leadership isn’t about skills – that’s supervisory—leadership is about the inherent beliefs and strengths that you possess long before you started working. These aren’t gained by a class, book, or bootcamp. You can’t be trained to be a leader, but you can be trained to be a better leader.

Most “leadership training” is a con job. Similar to finding water with a divining stick. It’s hocus-pocus, kumbaya, feel good stuff that puffs up one’s ego that quickly fades after the ‘training’ ends. One way I can tell is by asking someone who attended leadership training two questions,

1) “How was it?”

They usually respond with, “great”, “fun”, “the best training in my life.”

2) “What did you learn?”

There is an uncomfortable silence. The higher price the organization paid for the leadership training, the more uncomfortable the silence.

Let’s face it. Leadership is getting others to support or follow you to achieve the desired results. And, to get people to follow you, you use a mixture of fear and respect, or carrots and sticks. Since I want to be a ‘good’ leader, my mixture will be less on the fear and heavier on the respect. But fear doesn’t need to have a negative connotation. I wholly believe in channeling fear for good. Complacent people have little to no fear.

There are two essential characteristics to be a good leader. If you lack one, you’ll never successfully lead others for a long period of time. No class, no walking on coals, no rappelling off mountains, no boot-camps, no centres will give you these two essentials.

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1.     Courage.

Do you have guts? Do you take reasonable risks? Do you accept blame for you or your people’s decisions that go wrong? Do you address problems immediately? Do you highlight to senior management the problems in their thinking and how it impacts your department and people? Do you tell the truth? Are you courageous enough to be open-minded? Do you highlight organizational injustices?

On one SE Asian project, the Head of HR asked me to write a non-discrimination policy for their organization. The policy would be discussed at the next HR Leadership meeting. At the meeting, the HR head saw that my policy included gender as one of the non-discrimination factors. He asked me to take it out. I argued that modern companies’ non-discrimination policies include gender. He still insisted. I looked around the conference table and no one made eye contact with me. It was especially disheartening as half the attendees were women. To me, despite their high salaries and job titles, they weren’t leaders.

By ‘courage’ I don’t mean stupid or false courage. This type of courage causes rash decisions that often backfire. And a leader who makes too many rash decisions with stupid or false courage, will eventually be replaced.

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2.     Ethics.

Are you a good person? Will you lie, cheat, and steal to achieve your target? Do you put yourself or your position ahead of the good of your people or organization? Will you burn bridges, villages, and people to get what you want (ends justify the means)? Do people trust you? Do you set a good example? Are you fair? Are you on the take? Are you prejudiced-based or performance-based?

Courage and ethics can’t be taught to fully formed adults. I’m sure tons of cowards and criminals have attended leadership courses hoping that they will become an inspirational leader, but it just won’t work for the long haul. Such people are conning themselves and their followers. Eventually they get unmasked.

Nowadays people get PhDs in Leadership, but I wouldn’t necessarily consider them to be leaders. Would leaders be attending classes or leading others? It reminds me of people who study entrepreneurship. You can train someone to be a better entrepreneur, but the desire to be an entrepreneur isn’t gained from attending a class. Instead, it’s an innate desire to start and run a successful business AND act on it.

Whether you are a good leader has been decided by you a long, long time ago. A leadership class can teach you to be a better leader, but your inherent leadership beliefs and strengths have already been formed.

Humans are imperfect creatures. Our courage and ethics are on a continuum. The best, most inspirational, and wisest leaders are at the higher ends of the spectrum. The SOBs, dictators, depots, cowards and criminals (‘misleaders’) are at the lower ends.

You may disagree and share your 56+ essential competencies of a good leader according to some Western thinker with a PhD in Leadership. They probably include things like: negotiation skills, presentation skills, time management, business savviness, Blue Ocean thinking, multiple hat thinking, networking skills, whatever. But these are competencies. They are ‘nice to haves’. And if you as a courageous, ethical leader lack one of these competencies, no problem. You can learn, delegate, outsource, or hire someone to fill it. And some of these competencies are just buzz words to con you into paying for expensive ‘leadership programs’ that in reality just teach self-development and supervisory skills.

Bottom line: if you need someone to tell you or teach you to be a leader, then you’re not. And most leadership training isn’t about leadership training; it’s supervisory training, self-development, or rah-rah teambuilding and should be priced as such.

To young readers who haven’t had a chance to lead others yet, don’t worry. If you’re courageous and ethical your time will come. In the meantime, lead yourself well.

Leaders and self-leaders, let me know your thoughts. Be courageous and let’s keep it ethical.

At your service,

Steve Coyle is an American based in Malaysia since 1995. He’s president of the training / HR consultancy company ServiceWinners International Sdn. Bhd.,,



Artwork: Wizard:; Greta Thunberg:; Superkid:; Homer Simpson:

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