Leadership Training vs Leadership Development - Is There a Difference?

Ed Helton

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

In the past 10 years, we have worked with more than 80 organizations and thousands of individuals in leadership development/training. These organizations range from public to private, education, health care, finance, manufacturing, government, etc. The individuals run the gamut, from direct line employees to C-suite executives. Along the way, we found something important that we really weren’t looking for; we discovered an important distinction between leadership training and leadership development. Rather than being a semantic debate, this distinction is a paradigm changer.

“Without a better understanding of human development—what it is, how it is enabled, how it is constrained—what passes for ‘leadership development’ will more likely amount to ‘leadership training.’ The knowledge and skills gained will be like new files and programs brought to the existing operating system. True development is about transforming the operating system itself, not just increasing your fund of knowledge or your behavioral repertoire.”

Leadership training involves honing or developing technical skills that are performance-based. These skills/competencies fit very nicely into most systems, can be measured to some degree and are accepted as “has to have.” These include how to communicate, build teams, resolve conflict and get buy-in, among others. Most are offered in a brief online setting with a video of examples and a two or three question test. (Most people go directly to the test.) The box is checked. The skill is put in to use. Sometimes, we are left trying to figure out where the ROI is.

More effective leadership training occurs when the skills match the strategy of the organization. Leaders have identified the critical competencies through organizational research. Metrics are created to measure the effectiveness of each skill and how it is demonstrated.

The assumption is that the more skilled the workforce, the more results can be expected. McKinsey argues, “Too many training initiatives we come across rest on the assumption that one size fits all and that the same group of skills or styles of leadership is appropriate regardless of strategy, organizational culture or CEO mandates.”

What about leadership development? “True development is about transforming the operating system itself.” It is about increasing capacity.  Heifetz and Linsky might call it growing your “adaptive capacity.” This evolutionary approach expands a person’s capacity to think and act strategically; to engage others effectively; to be emotionally intelligent; to have heightened self-awareness; to address complex problems competently; to understand and leverage risk and reward; to be sensitive to the nuances of healthy interpersonal relationships; to have the confidence to be creative and innovative; and to effectively use the skills that have acquired through training and experience. Leadership development is the evolution from performing a task to leading others.

Development, not just training, is even more acute when an individual assumes greater responsibility and a more significant position in the organization. This developmental transition requires identifying what needs to be unlearned, relearned and learned for the first time. Old leadership DNA has to be discarded and new DNA adaptively acquired.

Leadership training is to equip a person with the required skill sets to perform effectively. Leadership development increases the capacity of a person to grow. Together, leadership training and leadership development enable the person who has the drive and is committed to the risk to become a consummate leader.

“If leadership involves will and skill, then leadership requires the engagement of what goes on both above and below the neck. Courage requires all of you: heart, mind, spirit and guts. And skill requires learning new competencies, with your brain training your body to become proficient at new techniques of diagnosis and action.”