Differences in Leadership Programs

Part 4 – Hiring the Right Trainer – The Novice Factor

The inability to effectively measure newer development models presents a strong and legitimate question of how an individual or organization can trust leadership and organizational development efforts and investments. Gaining the necessary trust requires a better understanding of the leadership industry and selecting the right professionals and development services. However, this task is often easier said than done. The first step in this process is understanding that not all development practitioners are truly experts.

The issues of consistency and program failure need significant consideration. Development programs vary wildly in design, and practitioner expertise may range from novice to expert across the industry. Therefore, individuals, organizations, and the leadership industry overall must expect some level of inconsistency. However, particular attention to novice or amateur programs is necessary as such programs may strongly contribute to both inconsistency and failure. 

Imagine discovering that a medical doctor’s training consisted of nothing more than a First Aid class or working as a medical receptionist for so many years. Or, imagine discovering that an attorney had foregone a legal education but opened up shop anyway because “To Kill a Mockingbird” made being a lawyer look fun. These examples may seem ridiculous because most people understand the importance of such professionals having the proper training and education. After all, an individual’s health and freedom might be on the line.

Similarly, one could argue that when it comes to leadership and organizational development, both careers and organizational performance are on the line. Moreover, the potential impact of a miss could be both dramatic and systemic. However, for reasons unknown, in many instances, individuals, organizations, and some practitioners seem to neglect or ignore this logical norm when it comes to leadership and organizational development endeavors. 

Researchers such as Dalakoura note that leadership development programs are usually planned and taught by either outside consultants, academics, or human resource specialists within the organization (2010). However, the development practitioner is arguably just as important as the material provided in the program, so one cannot overstate the importance of having a skilled practitioner facilitate the development program. This idea is supported by a recent study that examined the trainer’s effectiveness in a leadership development program and found that the trainer’s ability and effectiveness were critical to its success (Luria et al., 2019). However, while the preceding may seem entirely logical, one must also consider that a leadership trainer’s ability and effectiveness are likely based on their level of leadership knowledge and experience.

Consider the goal. Professional leadership development often seeks to ensure lasting behavioral change that improves a person’s leadership ability, engagement, and productivity. Such change is often not achieved by merely sharing pertinent information. If it were, self-help books and webinars would be enough. Therefore, practitioners whose programs lack the necessary leadership and behavior modification know-how may be missing the critical elements necessary to establish the desired change and the techniques required to help ensure the change can last.

For clarity, leadership-educated professionals often learn things like bias evaluation and control, human mind heuristics, organizational structuring, influence techniques, behavior evaluation and modification, self and critical reflection methods, interactive and technical skills, and the evaluation and potential integration of organizational strategy, among many others (Hanson, 2013). Each of these takes considerable time to learn and master. There is a reason why leadership experts dedicate years to learning the numerous leadership theorems, principles, and implementation methods. The science demonstrates that development programs that are rooted in leadership theorem positively affect both leaders’ and followers’ performance (Avolio et al., 2010). Accordingly, expert practitioners use these leadership theorems to address the individual’s transactional and transformational components and their potential impact on the organization (Hanson, 2013).

These ideas may present a significant problem for the individuals or organizations hiring or contracting with practitioners not versed in leadership theorems or applications specifically. Therefore, it behooves organizational leaders to consider the expertise and qualifications of those expected to teach their leadership development programs, as choosing a novice practitioner or program could result in various gaps, only short-term change, or program failure. Accordingly, such misses will likely have an impact on organizational performance and the bottom line. Unfortunately, this issue and its consequence may be more significant than currently appreciated. Contrast is key.

It is critically important to understand that the leadership development industry remains largely unregulated and that some leadership development programs are being taught by those with little or no legitimate leadership education or training. An equally important note is that there are currently no standards or requirements in place regarding the disclosure of a practitioner’s level of leadership training. Therefore, those tasked with development selection may find difficulty differentiating a true expert and an overconfident novice. Citations here are omitted for anonymity, but a scroll through LinkedIn’s various leadership groups and profiles demonstrates that many individuals educated in disciplines other than leadership (or not at all) are free to call themselves leadership professionals or experts and engage in commerce with unwitting individuals and organizations.

Similarly, numerous leadership coaching programs are offered on the internet, requiring nothing more than the purchase of the program’s materials (such as a book) and attending a few brief classes over several weeks to as little as a couple of days. These programs often tout being certified or accredited and suggest that the student will be ready to become a leadership professional upon completion. This is not meant to suggest that such programs do not offer value. However, it is meant to suggest that such offerings contrast significantly with the many years that some leadership professionals invest in their leadership degrees. This contrast is essential for outcome objectivity, measurement, and understanding.

One might conceptualize the preceding using an analogy. The game of football is fairly straightforward and generally consistent. However, the caliber of players, the plays ran, coaching abilities, and overall results differ significantly between the lower and professional levels. These differences usually hinge upon game knowledge, skillset, experience, and mastery. This idea is not too dissimilar to leadership development.

The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition suggests that expertise occurs in five progressive stages beginning with instruction and ending with experience (Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1980). Adaptations of this model suggest the same but propose that experts separate themselves via superior knowledge, integration or application strategies, and the time necessary to gain mastery (Dreyfus, 2004; Persky & Robinson, 2017). In context, trainers help students and clients gain knowledge via learning transfer (Cree & Macaulay, 2011). Therefore, brief, limited, or pseudo-leadership courses resulting in deficiencies in leadership knowledge matched with a false sense of confidence about the material learned may pose a significant problem for both the novice attempting to teach what they do not fully understand and for the individuals or organizations utilizing a novice for their leadership or organizational development needs.

While more research is necessary regarding the novice factor in a leadership development context, this theory assumes that practitioners not thoroughly educated and experienced in leadership and its development may miss or omit essential concepts, teach non-leadership or pseudo-leadership principles, blur management and leadership theorems, perpetuate common leadership misconceptions, and ultimately fail to achieve a professional leadership development outcome. Adding to the complexity and probability of failure is the idea that professional leadership development programs range from individualized development, organizational development, collective leadership development, and human development, with each one being more complex than the preceding (Kjellström et al., 2020). The resulting fallout of a miss seems both immeasurable and excessively costly for both the recipients of the training and the leadership discipline overall. Again, evaluators must understand this idea for program evaluation objectivity and clarity.

The novice factor further suggests that when novice practitioners fail to provide a quality outcome to their clients or further damage an already troubled individual or organization, the leadership development industry will likely receive the blame, and troubled individuals or organizations may experience a further and unnecessary decline in performance and profitability. Moreover, this idea may also illuminate why some organizations are currently avoiding much-needed leadership development. Logically, individuals or organizations that are let down or damaged by novice programs may avoid future development opportunities in general, primarily due to losing faith in the science of leadership development or not being able to discern a quality program from a novice one.

Regardless of the reason, the result may be that any engagement, productivity, and profitability improvement opportunities otherwise gained via professional development endeavors may be delayed, hindered, or lost due to the avoidance. Considering the direct link between leadership development and organizational growth, the potential consequences of development failure or avoidance likely reach well beyond competitive decline or downsizing, as such occurrences often negatively impact careers, families, and the communities the organization serves (Gandolfi & Hansson, 2011; Hameed & Waheed, 2011). The effect can be significant. Greater attention to this matter is likely warranted, but the warning remains. 

When expert instruction on a topic is desired, the logical choice would always be to seek an instructor that understands the material better than most. It is then critically important that individuals and organizations adhere to this logical norm for their development practitioner selections and hires. This idea is especially true if organizations want to trust the development process and its outcome.

Even the best leadership development practitioners can fail. However, considering the difficulties surrounding the measurement of development efforts discussed in part three of this series, and since the potential impact of a miss is so significant, it behooves individuals and organizations to consider setting some sort of leadership education or training standard before hiring or contracting with a leadership development practitioner. While it is true that a leadership degree is not necessary for the ability to either receive or relay leadership insights, it is also true that by seeking leadership development professionals with a leadership-specific degree, either internally or externally, organizations can reduce the odds of experiencing a costly miss when it comes to their leadership development efforts.

Parts one through three demonstrated some of the many complexities of leadership and organizational development. This article emphasized the importance of choosing the right practitioner for your development needs. Part five of this series explores some of the differences between management and leadership, along with some of the dangers that organizations face when confusing the two.


The Articles in this Series:


Use of this work is permitted with proper citation.

Acknowledgments & Actions

  • Thank you for examining this research. Be sure to share if you find value in it, and be sure to check out the other parts of this series.  
  • This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.


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