Leadership training providers need to lift their game – and so do leaders!


“…what you see with your eyes is not necessarily real. My enemy is, among other things, the me inside me.” ~ Haruki Murakami

I originally wrote this blog as an article for Sonia McDonald, director of the Queensland-based LeadershipHQ. It was published in the July 2015 Edition of LHQ Magazine, (page five). Since then, I’ve added a few more thoughts….

Provision of leadership training: big. Demand for leadership training and development: huge. Is this similar to commercial provision of fast, junk food and our appetite for it? Are we corporately obese from consumption of mass-produced, easily available, well advertised and marketed, ‘trendy’, but ultimately unhealthy leadership food that lacks balance and real nutritional value?

When you last spent money developing leaders in your organisation, how did you measure return on investment? Did you just need rid of un-allocated training budget at financial year-end? Did the provider of the ‘training’ or ‘development’ actually pay attention and understand your organisation’s problem, or deliver a package tweaked to make it ‘fit’? Are you sure you understood the problem you were trying to fix?

Leadership research: similarly vast. The golden chalice – to be the next “Kotter”, “Drucker”, or “Schein”. I’m not being dismissive; these people have at some point, all been ground breaking and influenced two decades or so of organisational culture and leadership. Nonetheless, exercise caution, and think! Drucker’s focus on effectiveness (from 1967) holds true – paraphrased: if you can’t articulate how the shiny thing contributes, then it’s just a shiny thing…enjoy looking at it, and move on.

How do you decide the best way to invest in not only your own development, but also that of leaders upon whom you rely? How do you ensure money spent on a four-day residential workshop at a five-star resort is worth it? For a start, you have to lift your game. Invest most, when you think you need it least; train hard, fight easy!


Not everyone is a leader. The David Brent parody (played by Ricky Gervais in ‘The Office’) springs to mind as the least damaging example. At worst an individual who isn’t a leader, but who occupies the role will get people un-necessarily killed, or take a good team and destroy it. The best people will leave, and the remainder turn into commuter-zombies.

I contemplate the start point for a leader as being able to provide people with reassurance, associated with your presence. For example, I create an environment where clients feel safe making themselves vulnerable, reinforced by three things: neither seeking, nor using testimonials; the prelude to any work of a non-disclosure agreement; and my manner and demeanour.

Reassurance can be visceral; a matter of survival, like in a firefight. It might be intellectual and psychological associated with your livelihood, maybe, when the Damoclesian threat of ‘restructure’ dangles over your department. When it doesn’t feel, sound, or look right – in uncertainty, and when you think it might go wrong – a leader’s the person you turn to, or think of, listen to, or look at with belief that they’ll make the right decisions to keep you (and those around you) safe.

Leadership’s foundation is the nature and quality of relationships. My horse-training and equine-facilitated learning programmes are based on the same principle. During and beyond my military career this remains fundamental. Statement of the obvious? Then why don’t we see it more widely? Why do people struggle with it?


Seductive leadership and development training is cleverly constructed and marketed – it’s multi-million dollar business. Testimonials from well-known figures and CEOs of ‘successful’ companies, offer gravitas. If we see a high-profile figure quoted, or the coach of a successful national sports team saying, “this was the best day I’ve ever spent, and I learned so much about myself!” – it has to be good, because I want some of that gilt to rub off. I want bragging rights to declare, “yeah, we took the executive team down to the lakeside resort where the World Cup team had a retreat before the semi-final”.

Really? That’s still the best you’ve got…?

When it goes wrong, the consequences can be dire; take for example, the recent experience of the England Rugby Team.  The UKs Telegraph newspaper reports how eight members of staff, under the team’s head of athletic performance, took part in what is described as an activity that, “sounds like something from a corporate training manual“. The UKs Daily Mail is a little more brutal, with a headline, “Only Fools and Horses” . The Mirror newspaper expostulated that, “some of the coaching staff led horses round a field in a bizarre pre-tournament team-building exercise“. I don’t doubt that the company providing the training is a professional organisation and did a good job; the point here is that media spin and the appetite for blood  following the England RWC2015 performance has not only ridiculed the activity undertaken by the English Rugby team, but also means the company providing the training for them is probably coy about advertising that they provided the training. Imagine if the England rugby team fortune had gone the other way!

What does this mean for you?

It means you have to try harder. Is adoption of re-contextualised ‘lean-six’ fault finding tools from a production line process the right answer, because it’s popular and fashionable? Roll the clock forward two years; tell me what it’ll look like when you (or one of your senior executives) are leading the people on whom your company relies to win? What behaviours would you expect to see? What do you do if you don’t see those behaviours? More importantly, why aren’t you seeing those behaviours – I mean, you sent people on a workshop with a great set of testimonials!

Did your expensive leadership development forum conduct personality type profiling? Was that what attracted you? Some of these activities are superb, and I know a few companies doing this really well. There is benefit in understanding what makes you tick as an individual or team, but beware! ‘Off-the-shelf’ profiling that repackages the findings and gives ‘insightful debriefs in a one-on-one exchange’ runs the risk of giving the recipient justification and excuses for poor, or bad behaviours.

Encouraging individuals to, ‘empower their subordinate staff to make decisions, and ‘take a greater level of ownership’ is a double-edged sword. I’ve intervened more than once where this manifests as detachment and disengagement from staff and the outcomes of the organisation. One particular experience stands out: when success (through application, by a person in a leadership position, of ‘forum-enlightened empowerment’) didn’t follow, ‘empowered’ staff began to question the logic or direction given. Their leader then saw people as incompetent or insubordinate – because $30K of development training meant they had to be right. It’s uncharitable to lay blame at the conference suite door of the leadership development forum; a company with a formidable reputation ran it. There were also problems with interpretation, assimilation, and subsequent application of the knowledge garnered by the attending leader – but it illustrates the value in thinking carefully about what you’re trying to achieve by investing in training and development. How will you measure success? Can you afford training and development that addresses symptoms, rather than causes, and that might even compound your problems?


What’re you going to do to make things better, and tackle the enemy inside you?


Leaders and Truthfulness


I wrote a little while ago on the topic of leaders, power and openness; I now want to look at another area – that of leaders and truthfulness.

Many leaders are forced to prioritize (and you might either be one, or relate to one who has to do this).  However, in the face of repeated exposure to overwhelming demands, which requirements will actually be done to standard and which will only be reported as done to standard creates…well, tension. Ethics begin to fade and the risk of leaders growing numb to institutional deception rises  over time.  What follows is organisational leadership that rationalizes the tension created and then there is rationalization of the conflict between spouting heroic sounding professional values while slogging through the daily mire of dishonesty and deceit. The end result is a corrosion of culture. Few leaders acknowledge it and even fewer have the appetite to either discuss or work to correct.  If you listen carefully, you can hear the discomfort as one or two readers awkwardly ease from butt-cheek to butt-cheek.
My thoughts were stimulated (and I won’t pretend this article isn’t heavily ‘intellectually beach-combed’)  to write on this topic after a great friend (and huge influence on my own thinking…which I am happy for other’s to intellectually beach-comb) sent me a study eye-catchingly and brutally titled, “Lying to ourselves: dishonesty in the Army profession”.  You can download it free, if you follow the link.
The study’s foreward holds your nose and slips in a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down by stating that, “one of the hallmarks of a true profession as its ability to assess and regulate itself, especially with respect to adherence to its foundational ethos. The foreword further states, “such self-examination is difficult and often causes discomfort…”  As an observation, I would offer that such self examination is difficult and causes discomfort if the thing being examined is an ethical fade and representative of a ‘straying’ from, rather than an adherence to, a foundational ethos.  In other words, whether it is difficult and uncomfortable or not is in the hands of the leaders!
It made me think about one of the recommendations the study made: What actually would happen, and what would it say about the culture of an organisation if leaders examined the moral implications of a decision first instead of rationalizing them away after the fact?  I am going to think on that some more and make it the subject of a future blog.  In the meantime, by putting considerations of the integrity of the organisation back into the decision-making process, the study suggests that leaders dismantle the façade of mutually agreed, institutionally sanctioned deception. The process is helped by leaders who are genuine in their encouragement of brutal honesty in reporting from subordinates.  Note too: there are lots of people in leadership positions who say they are comfortable with brutal honesty….but the reality is a little different.  Another important aide to the dismantling process (so the study says) is self-exam­ination at both the individual and organisational levels; this is most definitely difficult and most certainly will often cause discomfort, but nonetheless, it is necessary too.  Humans are….human, after all – and I am far from perfect!
When leaders ignore dishonesty, attributing it to a minor organizational (is the mixing of my “z” and “s” in words like this driving you nuts yet?) shortcoming; or when leaders write off dishonesty as an inevitable aspect of bureaucracy, it actually inflicts long-term damage on the culture of the organisation.  The calibration of the compass gets out of whack and there is the erosion over time of trust between leaders and those being led.  Time can be short, and pass quickly too and as an aside, I recommend Stephen M.R. Covey’s book “The Speed of Trust” for further bedtime reading.  The foreword in his book is written by his father – “that” Stephen Covey (Stephen R. Covey). Covey Sr. proudly compliments his son’s competence, character and leadership – which features the underpinning elements of not only being trusted, but extending trust to others.
The foundation of trust is eroded (among other things – of which you can read more in Covey’s book) by duplicity and deceit. For example, at a strategic level, the study suggests that this hypocrisy might allow senior leaders to unconcernedly shift a billionty-six dollars to overseas contingency operations funding, to minimize the base budget. At the operational level, the self-deception might make it easy for leaders to dismiss equivocation and false reports as a feature of “bad” departments; they might attribute ‘ticking-the-box’ and fudging results to “weak” leaders or managers. At the coal-face level, duplicity might allow leaders to “feed the machine” bogus information while maintaining a sense of self-identity as someone who does not lie, cheat, or steal.  We are human after all…right?
Horses don’t lie, cheat or steal.  They don’t engage in duplicity, or deceit.  They don’t care who you are; they are not impressed by your reputation. What you see in front of you, and how they react is a direct reflection of you.  It makes them such superb animals for helping to teach the improvement of the quality and the nature of relationships between people – and especially between leaders and those they lead.  It is difficult to accept sometimes, and it can cause discomfort and frustration!  How you behave during your interaction with the horse, what you pay attention to and how open you are to the horse’s input are pivotal.
Horses are superb at helping demonstrate how leadership behaviour and truthfulness of the leader influences the experiences of people who work for them. People, like horses, take heed of such things as whether a leader behaves in a way that allows them to trust that person as a leader.  That trust might be built through the leader demonstrating concern for their well‐being and that of their family, for example.  Perhaps the leader demonstrates the organisation’s (look, no “z”!!) ethos and values in the way they behave, or speak.  People working for a leader might think about whether the leader exhibits clarity of thought and responsibility for the control of their emotions.  Do they look at the leader as someone who is accountable for their actions, and do they in turn hold others to account for theirs? Is the leader someone who embarrasses people in front of others? Do they allocate rewards and punishment fairly?
The US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute study – (and try saying that fast after a beer or two!) relays an interesting metaphor: In ancient Rome, a triumphant general would ride in a celebratory procession through the city after a key battlefield victory. Standing in the chariot behind the general, however, was a slave who whispered into the ear of the general, “Respice post te! Hominem te memento!” meaning, “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man!”  The point is, acknowledging organizational and individual falli­bilities is the first step if you want to move toward changing the culture.
What happens in the next steps beyond acknowledgement…well, that’s one of the reasons people ask me to work with them.

The importance of asking, “why?”…


Why what?….Why this blog? Why horses? Why leadership?  Why horses and leadership? Why me?

“Why?”  is an important question to ask yourself – “why are you doing this?”, “why are you here?”, “what makes you turn up on the day’s you feel like you don’t want to?”

The essence for me is that ‘it’ (the horses thing, the leadership thing, the horses and leadership thing) provides me with sense-making – and more importantly, comfort with the times when it doesn’t make sense.  It is around these things  and amongst these things that I have found expression of authentic self.  Without obsessing, I have reflected over the years on what I might actually ‘do’ with my life if I could really choose to spend my time in any way I wanted.  It took a long time to work it out – partly because I just didn’t know.

It was also partly because like many, many other people in the world I have bills to pay, and partly it was because I have been fortunate to spend a large part of my life doing work that I loved.  With all of that, I realised that the things that were always ‘centring’, always ‘grounding’, always ‘restorative’, always humbling and a privilege, and always gave me strength to endure things that were difficult were the things that emerged from either being around horses, or being a leader….or both.

The leadership and development work I provide have became a natural extension of my work with horses and other formative events.  The horse is a great vehicle (forgive the pun) for teaching and provides endless examples for me to work with clients.

The final element for me was this this:

At the end of it all – I ran out of reasons to keep trying to convince myself that this was only something I did in my ‘spare’ time; life is too short and much too fickle.

In solving some problems, there is a neat technique called, ‘the five whys’.  It usually starts with a statement about a problem and involves asking the question, “why?” Whatever the answer to this first question, you then ask, “why?” again.  In response to that answer, ask “why?” and keep asking it until you have asked “why?” on five occasions.  The answer to the final posing of “why?” tends to be the revealing of the real problem, not the one that it first appeared to be.


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