Faculty Commentary: Dr. Smith

Posted on March 15, 2022 by MCOB Outreach
MCOB Outreach

Righting the Ship: Leadership Development That Is!

Does your company invest in leadership development? Considering recent estimates for how much US companies spend annually on leadership development (~$160 billion), my guess would be that your company does invest in leadership development in some format. If not, we’ll get to that later. It might surprise you (or not) to know that academics and practitioners alike contend that a large portion of this spending fails to yield a true return. In other words, much of the money spent on leadership development is wasted. After teaching several courses in the last few years in which we discussed leadership development in detail, I began to question why many experts claim that leadership development is a “rudderless ship.” So, I thought back to my experiences as a leadership development consultant, and I dove into the academic research. From my perspective, making sure the ship not only has a rudder but is also heading in the right direction comes down to three things.

First, it is important to clearly define leadership development. Leadership development is a strategic set of activities that align with the goals of the organization (e.g., vision, mission, performance, sustainability). Right off the bat, this is where many organizations go awry, because they define leadership development as something else – typically leader development. Leader development focuses on individual growth and skill acquisition and is only one piece of the leadership development puzzle. So, in keeping with our “ship” metaphor, leadership development might involve assessing and addressing strengths and weaknesses of the current ship’s officers, identifying high potential deckhands and developing them into future officers, and evaluating the return on your investment. It takes a strategic approach to keep these activities in alignment and to maximize your return.

Second, leadership development takes time and commitment. Sending three or four deckhands to a weekend captain’s training may sound familiar to you. It’s probably the most common example of how companies “do” leadership development. However, other than maybe acquiring a few neat tools or making a few connections, what did you really get from your most recent crash course in becoming an effective leader? I don’t mean to sound overly facetious, but companies engaging this short-term approach to leadership development are not really developing leaders. Leadership development involves more than just building leader competencies (e.g., communication skills). It includes relationship development and networking, which take time and commitment. Indeed, commitment to the process, whatever that happens to look like in your company, is key. Commitment, that is, in terms of time, resources, and support.

Lastly, leadership development is complex. This complexity is often a cause of frustration that leads organizational leaders away from crafting an effective leadership development strategy. Yes, leadership development is complicated, but so is operating a ship. So, at some point, to run a tight ship (stretching the metaphor a bit here), you must become comfortable with complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity. The same is true for leadership development. Only when you’ve become comfortable with it will you be able to create structure among the chaos by establishing goals, devising metrics for measuring progress toward those goals, and ultimately evaluating the success of your leadership development strategy.

As we bring the ship into port, let me send one last salvo out to those who feel their leadership development is ineffective or non-existent. Leadership development is one of the core strategies for sustainability. Within leadership development, you will commonly see succession planning, for instance. Making sure the company will be in good, capable hands in the future requires more than technical competence. An effective leadership development strategy ensures that you are developing the whole person – not just the technically competent wizard – because at some point, that wizard is going to have to motivate, inspire, and influence others. So, don’t skimp on the soft skills or the process of building and maintaining relationships. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great companies, and the ones who “do” leadership development right share three things. They are strategic about it. They are committed to it. They embrace the complexity. Here’s to smooth sailing in your leadership development efforts!


Dr. Smith


Mickey B. Smith, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Management

Mitchell College of Business

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