Real Leadership Development is . . .


Leadership and learning are indispensable from each other. ~ John F. Kennedy

Whether developed and delivered by world-renowned business professors at famous universities, or designed and conducted by company L&D specialists, most leadership development courses, workshops and programs don’t work!  They don’t create leaders. At best they deliver interesting information and data. Just because you have new stories and information about leadership doesn’t make you a better leader.

Leadership is about leading. It\s about you doing what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. It\s not about knowing what others have done.

Effective leadership has more to do with character and courage than IQ or business degrees.

As you can tell, I am not a great fan on leadership development programs in general.  After all, one important ingredient to real leadership is almost always absent from these courses: Courage.  The courage to take a stand. The courage to go against the tide of majority opinion when it is wrong.  The courage to risk failure to bring a new product or service to market quickly. The courage to confront poor behaviors and poor attitudes at any level of the organization. The courage to protect those being bullied by ineffective managers or supervisors.

Malala Yousafzai Opens Birmingham LibraryI take note that courageous leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Steve Jobs and Malala didn’t attend a leadership development course, yet in the eyes of most would be considered true leaders in their field.


Leadership development is critically important and the world is crying out for more leaders. So, is there a way to develop real leadership?

I think there is.  A few companies havCulture rulese the right approach.  What I call “real world, experiential learning”.  Let me give you an example.  One that I use in my new book, Culture Rules! The 10 Core Principles of Corporate Culture and how to use them to create greater business success (available in paperback from Amazon in mid-October, 2017).

General Electric is highly regarded for turning out exceptional business leaders. GE’s internal leadership development process began in 1910 and today is a 5-year application only course, and of the 200 who enter the program each year, only 2% make it to the C-Suite level within GE. Many go on to leadership roles in other companies, like Larry Bossidy, former GE executive recruited to run Allied-Signal.

 The program is short on classroom training and long on field experience. The official name of the program is Corporate Audit Staff, an unlikely sounding name for a leadership development program. Participants, however, have nicknamed it the Green Beret program for its rigor and high drop-out rate.

Much of the GE internal leadership development process consists of a series of 4-month projects and assignments in various GE businesses around the world working alongside established senior executives, during which upcoming leaders receive continuous feedback and honest critiques.

Putting people outside their comfort zone quickly weeds out those without a hunger for new ideas and learning. Likewise, classroom training revolves around current case studies of situations within GE companies, and follows the “GE Playbook”, which mandates taking decisive actions, slashing costs dispassionately, streamlining operations, bolstering product development efforts, imposing financial discipline, developing teams and instituting some form of continuous process improvement such as Six Sigma training. Internal leadership development began at GE long before Jack Welch became CEO and is the outcome of a strong corporate culture where discipline, process innovation, facts and people are seen as the cornerstones for business growth and sustainability.

Why don’t more companies develop strong internal leadership development programs? In a corporate culture system dominated by the drivers of cost control, functional budgets and beliefs about the importance of products and technology over people as the real business drivers, leadership development is rarely a high priority. Corporate culture determines much of how companies do things, and in this case, how they develop leaders, or not!

The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.          ~Harvey S. Firestone

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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