Should We Train Leaders This Way? Rethinking Conventional Wisdom

How did you learn to be a leader? Successful executives told the Center for Creative Leadership that they learned through experiences, especially stretch assignments, hardships, and even mistakes. (1) Currently the majority of leadership is learned on the job and most leaders say that they prefer to learn from experience. But when executives, HR professionals and leaders are surveyed they say their organizations do not have the quantity or quality of leaders they need and that they are not satisfied with the current development methods. So, why do we believe that experience is the best way to learn if it is not producing the leaders we need? And why are we not getting better results from this approach? Perhaps looking at learning in a different context can shed some light on that question.

Learning from the Past 

At the dawn of aviation, Orville and Wilbur Wright taught new pilots to fly primarily by flying with them. They believed that you could only learn to fly by fixing and flying airplanes.

The first military airman, Benjamin Foulois had just a little over three hours of instruction, no experience in taking off and landing, and had never flown an airplane alone when he was sent to Texas to be in charge of instructing others (and himself) in the art of flying. When Foulois expressed his anxieties to the Chief of the Signal Corp, the General reassured him: “You’ll learn those techniques (soloing, landing and taking off) as you go along… Just take plenty of spare parts - and teach yourself to fly.” (2).

In the early years of military aviation training, it was assumed that pilots were born – you had it or you didn’t. So ingrained was this belief that when Edwin Link approached the Army in 1929 to sell them a machine that could train pilots from the safety of the ground, they sent him away saying that his trainer was merely an amusing toy. Edwin Link sold his invention mostly to amusement parks -- until 1934. In that year, the Air Corps began delivering the U.S. mail. Over unfamiliar routes and in bad weather, the Air Corps pilots -- who had no experience flying blind or using instruments -- were decimated. In 78 days, there were 66 crashes and 12 fatalities. The Air Corp reconsidered Mr. Link’s training machine and by the end of 1936, they owned 21 Link trainers. (2)

Unfortunately, the harsh realities of learning to fly by experience did not stop. During WWII and the Korean War, new pilots only had about a 50/50 chance of surviving their first decisive encounter. (3) Finally, a naturally occurring experiment showed the military that the right kind of training could have a huge impact on success -- without the deadly costs of learning on the job. From 1965 to 1968, both the US Navy’s and Air Force’s exchange ratio (US planes lost/Vietnamese planes lost) was about 2 to 1. A bombing halt was called in 1969 and when flights resumed in 1970 the Air Force’s exchange rate was again about 2 to 1. The Navy’s, however, had improved -- it was now 12.5 to 1. The difference was Navy Fighter Weapon’s school (aka Top Gun) where the Navy pilots trained in engagement simulations. (3)

The Truth about Experience and Leadership Development

So what does all this have to do with leadership? Like flying in the early days, many people believe that leadership is something you either have or you don’t. (4) This belief leads to the “fly or die” approach to developing leaders. Give leaders challenging experiences and if they have “it” they will succeed; if they don’t have “it” then their failure is evidence of that. When leaders fail, the result is not as dramatic as when pilots fail, but leader’s rate career transitions as second only to divorce in stress and difficulty. (5) And, in an eerie similarity, Gentry found that the success rate for managers is about the same as the success rate for new pilots in WWII – roughly 50%. (6) Can we really assume that the 50% who fail do not have the ability to be good leaders?

Recent research on how people learn and build skills sheds some light on this question. The truth is that expertise does not automatically come from many years of experience. When the performance of people who were considered to be experts in their field was measured objectively, many experts demonstrated remarkably unremarkable performance. (7) In the workplace, less than two years of experience substantially improves job performance. (8) It only looks like experience is the best way to learn how to be a leader because we are assuming that promotion is evidence of success (it is not, but more on that in a later article) and because we are not considering the success/failure ratio. The failure rate in leadership development is a double whammy. We don’t have the leadership talent that is needed and mediocre managers clog the pipeline, reducing opportunities to develop others who may have better potential for success.

There Is A Better Way 

So what do we do about it? Fortunately, the recent insights and discoveries on learning also give us a solution. We now know that proficiency develops in three sequential stages that I call -- Facts, Skills, and Wisdom. Learning is most efficient and effective when development activities are appropriately matched to the learner’s current stage of proficiency. The first stage of proficiency -- learning the basic facts -- is best accomplished with formal learning, like classroom; the second stage requires practice of fundamental skills (something we don’t really do at all in workplace learning); and the final stage – building wisdom and deep expertise -- should be developed through experience.

Experience is necessary for becoming a talented leader, but it only works when it builds on and is properly sequenced with other development activities. If new leaders are failing to thrive, it is not evidence that they don’t have “it” or that they just need more time to figure it out. They need better structured development; they need more teaching and coaching. Bosses and mentors should keep a closer watch and leaders should be quicker to ask for help. Thank goodness we have abandoned the “take plenty of spare parts and teach yourself to fly” approach to training pilots. Now, let’s get better at training leaders.



References and Sources (for those who like this sort of stuff)

  1. McCall, M. W.; Lombardo, M. M.; & Morrison, A. M. (1988). The lessons of experience: How successful executives develop on the job. The Free Press: New York.
  2. Cameron, R. H. (1999). Training to fly: Military flight training 1907 to 1945. Air Force History and Museum Program.
  3. Chatham, R. E. (2009). The 20-century revolution in military training in Ericsson, K. A. (Ed.), Development of professional expertise: Toward measurement of expert performance and design of optimal learning environments. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
  4. Gentry, W.; Deal, J. J.; Stawiski, S. Ruderman, M. (2012). Are leaders born or made? Perspectives from the executive suite. Center for Creative Leadership: Greensboro, NC.
  5. Paese, M. & Mitchell, S. (2007). Leaders in transition: Stepping up, not off. Development Dimensions International: Pittsburgh, PA.
  6. Gentry, W. A. (2010). Managerial derailment: What it is and how leaders can avoid it. In Biech, E. (Ed.), ASTD leadership handbook. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.
  7. Ericsson, K. A. (2006). The influence of experience and deliberate practice on the development of superior expert performance. In Ericsson, K. A.; Charness, N.; Feltovich, P. J. & Hoffman, R. R. (Eds.) The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance (pp. 683-704). Cambridge University Press: New York, NY.
  8. McDaniel, M.A., Schmidt, F.L., & Hunter, J.E. (1988). Job experience correlates of job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 73, 327-330.