Making Leadership Success “Stick”


January 17, 2011

I’ve been thinking lately about why some leaders fail.  There are many theories about the causes and what can be done to improve the leadership abilities a person has.  There are also theories that focus on the idea that leadership abilities are something that individuals are born with, that they are innate.  Either way, companies promote people into leadership roles who either do not have the skills they need or the skills they have are not strong enough to be successful.

Living in the real world

In my career I’ve had the same conversation many times.  It goes like this:

Manager– “Jane Doe is not leading her team effectively.  She is not respected, she alienates her staff, she’s too hard (or too soft) on her staff, she does not understand business metrics and how to meet them, and on and on.  What training do we offer that I can send her to?  I think she needs leadership training.  I think she needs training on how not to alienate her staff.”

HR– “Well, we offer Leadership 101, How to Give Constructive Feedback, yadda yadda yadda.”

Manager– “Great.  Let’s send her to XYZ training.”

End of story?  No.  Six months later, her boss is back and says she has not improved.  She is still having the same issues. So, what went wrong?  We talked about it and wrote in her plan that she needed training then she attended training.  She should have been a success story, right?

Sound familiar?

Companies today tend to put all their eggs in one basket and focus predominantly on training.  But is that the best strategy?  Isn’t on-the-job learning the best way to teach someone how to lead?

I’ve been thinking and researching why this is not working.  My theory is that the real problem is not any of the leadership skills the employee lacks.  The root problem is that the employee lacks self-awareness and acceptance and without THAT, this employee can attend training ever day and still never improve. If this manager does not perceive that she has issues dealing with her staff, then sending her to training to work on that will just not sink in.

Breaking the cycle

We need to take it back to square one.  Self-awareness training.  Make employees go through training that will show them where the deficiencies lie.  Make them talk about it.  Make them discuss whether they realize these are deficiencies.  Do they agree?  Disagree?  Without that piece, you may never break through, so that later, when they understand what they need to work on and they have buy in that it is holding them back in their performance.

Path to Success

Once you have your leaders embracing their strengths and with awareness of their skill deficiencies, you can begin both on-the-job training supplemented with some classroom training.  Then:

  • Tie it to accolades
  • Tie it to responsibility
  • Tie it to money

Then, and only then will the leadership training begin to stick.  Otherwise, you may be throwing away your company’s training dollars for no reason.  Think about it.


  • From my experiences, I have seen a leadership deficit can stem from various sources or variables. One may be a lack of training or nonexistent training whatsoever, two may be the individual’s self awareness or lack there of, and third may be an organizational culture that does not allow development or hinders any leadership development due to micromanaging, power trips, or silo mentalities. I agree that any amount of training will not fix a person who is not aware of their difficulties — some praise 360 type feedback to assist with this. However, taking a step back to look at other variables that bottleneck the nurturing of up and coming leaders can also be invaluable. Otherwise, those with the desire and ability will eventually move on to organizations and companies where their leadership growth is not stifled.


  • 12 point program? Hello, my name is Abe and I’m a… lousy manager.

    I agree self-reflection is an essential component of management. If you don’t understand yourself, how can you understand others? And if you don’t understand the people you lead, how can you hope to figure out what motivates them ?

  • Great suggestion Trish. I might throw in using mentoring as a tool for this. Hooking up a new manager or one in need of improving with a successful one to pick up what the good one is doing right.

  • I think the self awareness piece is key. Everything else is secondary.

    I’ve had managers that I really disliked. I didn’t care for the way they treated the team, did their job, handled praise, or a bevy of other things.

    I thought I was a pretty good manager. Good relationships, clear targets, room to maneuver, tools to succeed, support when you failed. And inexplicably, there were ungrateful people on my team who didn’t like how I ran the team. The nerve.

    It wasn’t until my second gig as a manager of a decent sized team that the light went on. I was managing people the way I wanted to be managed, but I am not, in some ways, like everyone else. I expect a certain degree of latitude in my work. I crave it. But others crave concrete answers and direction just as much. It doesn’t make them wrong, just wired differently.

    Once I realized that my style could be the issue, I was able to really examine interactions with individuals and figure out how to work with them. It made me a much better manager, and helped everyone perform better.

    If a manager doesn’t have self awareness, they can’t be really effective in dealing with others. It is a terribly overlooked skill. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • Good message Trish. We’re kicking off a new leadership development initiative this year that will be individualized to meet the unique needs of each leader. It feels like a daunting task, but will be so valuable once we get things underway.

    Good insight!

  • Trish,

    Thank you for this article!!! I am facing this issue right now and the continuing issue is self-awareness. Even with a 360, they still do not get it. It has gotten to the point that they now point out I am trying to change because you said this was an issue. However, they still do not see that they have an issue. They are just doing what they are supposed to do based on the 360 degree results.

    It has gotten to the point of just frustration.

    Great article, Trish!

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About Trish

A former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience.


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