The Leadership Industry

Business is booming. At least in the private sector. US spending on corporate training grew by 15% in 2013, and is on track to grow as much or more this year. The numbers are impressive: $70 billion was spent in the US and over $130 billion worldwide.* The biggest investment in corporate training is in leadership and management, confirming yet again the gap between the leaders that we think we have and the leaders that we think we ought to have.

Spending on leadership training, specifically in corporate America, is counter-intuitive. It goes down when the evidence suggests that leaders are bad and more training is needed. And it goes up when the evidence suggests that leaders are good and less training is needed. More precisely, corporate spending on leadership development is a reliable indicator of economic activity. When business slows it goes down; when business picks up so does spending on training.

Invariably, leadership training, or leadership development, or leadership education, raises the issue of leadership for what? What is the purpose of trying to teach leadership? The answer of course is, it depends. It depends on the context within which the question is asked.

Where I work – at the Harvard Kennedy School – the word “leadership” implies something good, as in leadership for the common good, leadership for public service. But in corporate America the meaning is different. In corporate America the word leadership suggests a context confined to the company. This does not imply that the interests of the company and the interests of the general public inevitably are at odds. In fact, there is more attention now than there used to be to corporate social responsibility. But it does mean that in corporate American leadership training is for the purpose of training leaders to turn a profit. They are trained to do right by the organization within which they work – not necessarily to do right by the community more generally.

The success of any single leadership training program is famously difficult to measure. It’s an issue about which I’ve written extensively, and it is not one easily amenable to amelioration. Suffice it to say here, for now, that on one level corporate leadership development in recent years has been successful. By many criteria the American economy is doing well, certainly in comparison with the economies of other Western democracies. But there are other ways of judging leadership training – about which more in subsequent posts.


*The figures are from Josh Bersin, “Spending on Corporate Training Soars: Employee Capabilities Now a Priority,” February 4, 2014.



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