The cry of anguish we often hear around organisations is “we need more training”. Cheque books are reached for and boxes wait passively ready to be ticked. But does management skills training actually lead to better performing managers?

I don't believe it does. I was asked to sit in on a leadership skills programme. The course began with a brainstorm on who the great leaders in history were, (Winston Churchill and Richard Branson always, for some reason, come to the fore).

Then the group was asked to come up with the characteristics which made these people great leaders. The fatal flaw came when the facilitator asked the group: “And how can we acquire these attributes?” Firstly it is not possible to acquire these attributes, and secondly even if it was, it is not desirable.

There is no magic formula for making perfect leaders, just as we cannot create the perfect woman or man. So let's forget the idea of a perfect leader or a perfect management/leadership training programme. We do not attend friendship skills programmes, and yet we each manage to make, and keep, close friends.

Faking it

Managers who habitually don't listen are often encouraged to attend a listening skills course. Yet, when attending the programme, these non-listening leaders are often taught how to pretend to listen. They widen their eyes, maintain eye contact, nod in all the right places, say “mm hmm” at strategic points in the conversation. They learn how to repeat and paraphrase: “I see, so what you are saying is”. In short, they can learn how to convince the other person that they are listening without actually hearing a word. The more enlightened leaders really do listen because they are interested and want to hear what people are saying.

If someone is habitually late for meetings, it is said that they have a time management problem. No, they don't. They are simply habitually late for meetings. Yet, by our use of language, we are predetermining the outcome before analysing the issue – going for the easy option. This ignores the fact that the person may be superfluous to the meeting (or even, heaven forbid, that the meeting itself is superfluous). So, the person attends the time management skills course, comes back fully conversant with the theories of time management, armed with a plastic Filofax – and is still habitually late for meetings.

Communication skills is another old chestnut, a box into which we can place any leader who doesn't let people know what is going on. How often do we hear that someone lacks communication skills? It's probably the second most common charge levelled at leaders in organisations, after lacking people skills. So what should they do? Attend a communication skills course. Maybe they can learn Morse code and semaphore. Communication is a desire, not a skill. If we feel it is important that people be kept informed, then we will keep them informed.

The better leaders with whom I have worked transcend skills, technique and competency. The Latin root of the word education is e-ducato, which means leading out. So rather than cram our heads full of the tired worn out ideas of others, or aspire to be like someone else, we should be developing the unique leader in all of us.

Personality is the result of the interaction between genetic conditions and environmental conditions and can be represented in this way: P = (G x E). Therefore, personality once set, does not change.

Behaviour is the result of the interaction between personality and situation and can be represented in this way: B = (P x S). Therefore, behaviour can be modified if we choose.

So we cannot change our personalities, but we can, if we choose, modify our behaviour. And just as behaviour is our choice, so too is development. Having a menu (or wish list) of management skills or competencies makes it easier to sell the concept of management training, breaking leadership down into a collection of easy-to-digest, bite-sized chunks. Yet so often, several weeks down the line, those who participated recollect a few tasty morsels and recall how good the beer was at the hotel and how the trainer had the scars of experience.

But there is no discernible modification of behaviour. It is also the case that how you measure the performance of your managers will determine how they behave.

So, if you measure your managers simply on the usual hard issues of throughput, or adherence to budget, or to contribution to the bottom line then that is exactly how they will behave.

Begin to measure them on how well their people are being nurtured and developed, how motivated the people are, whether want to get out of bed in the morning, are they learning and being promoted? Then you will see a change in behaviour. And if you really want to know how a manager is doing, then find out how the people they manage are doing.

Training is a passive term, something which is done to us. The active term is development, something which happens after training or, more likely, happens without it. So instead of passively waiting to be trained, find out how your people are doing, get to know the impact of your behaviour and then you will know the areas for development and you can choose, (or not), to do something about it.

Just as we can understand the impact of our organisation through the eyes of customers, leaders should consider that they are providing a management service to those they lead. So that means getting close to them, understanding them as individuals and teams, being clear where the gaps are.

Imagine if our customers, the people we lead, had the facility to change suppliers if they were not happy with the service. Then we would ensure that we were in constant dialogue with them, and that we were providing the sort of leadership they needed.

Leadership is a people game, and a contact sport and so it is by understanding ourselves and the impact of our behaviour that we can truly begin the process of development. The alternative is to sign up for the latest course on crisis management, and pretend we have it taped.

  • Bill McAneny is an Organisational

    Psychologist, and managing director of

    Prelude Consulting He can be contacted on 01376 342288 or email: