I seem to be on the fast track at my company. The firm sends me to off-site leadership-training programs every year. Frankly, though, while I enjoy the week off and always come back energized, a month later I'm back to my old habits. Is it me, or is leadership training less than it's cracked up to be?
Ah, you've hit on one of the great unspoken dilemmas of the business world. Leadership training is big business. Each year, untold millions are spent on such programs, not to mention self-help books and executive coaching.
But let's be blunt: Leaders are born and shaped early on, not taught in hotel conference rooms. That's not to say leaders have nothing to learn. But when I've asked great leaders about their favorite leadership book, they usually stare blankly. Leadership is developmental. Rudy Giuliani wasn't known for his leadership ability before September 11. Presumably, though, he had it in him to begin with, and the situation he faced allowed his remarkable talent to emerge.
So take heart. Your experience of leadership training is common. It's flattering to be sent and sometimes inspiring to attend. If well-managed, the session can provide some useful fine-tuning and feedback. But we just don't change our stripes all that much after a week of nearly anything, unless the experience is traumatic—and even then, it's our underlying personality rather than the event itself that determines how we respond.
The appeal of leadership training is undeniable, making us feel good and sustaining the fantasy that we might become the next Jack Welch. What we could really use, though, is more training in effective management, which depends on a far more teachable set of skills. With so much invested in building up our would-be leaders, who's training the followers? Don't we need more of them?
On a conference call with 40 people, I asked some important questions that others were interested in. But afterward, my manager told me, "Don't ask questions. It's annoying and makes you look like an idiot." She said that people in her office rolled their eyes when I spoke and suggested that I email my questions to the moderator rather than speak up on the call. How do you see it?
Tough call, so to speak. It's hard enough to have a productive discussion with 40 people in the same room, much less on the phone. I'd urge you to judge each situation carefully. Consider the intent of the call and the audience. Ask yourself if there's a better way to get the information you need. If you have a burning question that's of interest to all, fire away. But it may be better to save it for a forum you can more predictably control, such as email.
Your manager could be more tactful, but her blunt feedback may be a blessing. Ask her what it was about your questions that elicited such a strong reaction. Was it their content or their form? Some people ask good questions in a way that doesn't come off as foolish or self-aggrandizing. Don't be a conference-call masochist. Taking risks is one thing, but don't sacrifice your own reputation in the name of helping colleagues. If that's what's going on, you owe it to yourself to figure out why.
Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Ask him your questions about the psychology of business (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A version of this article appeared in the January 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.