“Leadership” – the “Top Learning Priority”

The Financial Times recently conducted a survey of chief learning officers (CLOs) from companies around the world. More than a quarter said they intended to increase their executive education budgets in 2021, while over half planned to keep their spending at current levels. In other words, though the CLOs insisted they wanted less “fluff” in the future than they had in the past, as well as a proven return on their investment, executive education remained high on their list of priorities.*

The survey further revealed that under the rubric of executive education “leadership” was the top learning priority. Fully 82 percent of respondents cited it as important. Moreover, another 57 percent of respondents cited “change management” as important. In other words, “leadership” and “change management” – terms often thought of as synonymous – far outstripped in importance other executive education priorities such as diversity and inclusion, and digital transformation.

Ironically, it is far from clear that courses in “leadership” and “change management” will avoid the “fluff,” and provide the “return on investment” that CLOs profess to be looking for. What remains opaque, as inevitably it does, is what exactly is meant, particularly by the word “leadership.” What, more precisely, does learning leadership imply to the 82 percent of chief learning officers who deem it of greatest importance?

Are they imagining that leadership is different from management? If so, how? Are they conceiving leadership as a certain set of skills? If yes, which ones? Or are they thinking that leadership is character? If no, how is leadership distinct from character; and if yes, how is character taught? Or is character something that is innate, or instilled in early childhood?

In other words, so long as the leadership industry dodges the question of what exactly is leadership, and so long as the leadership industry skirts the issue of what can reasonably be learned about leadership in a very short period of time, so long will chief learning officers be destined to question their investment – and fret about fluff.

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*Andrew Jack, “What Employers Want from Executive Courses,” Financial Times, May 9, 2021.

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