Guest Bloggers

Leadership Development – Really?

In response to frequently discussed crises in leadership, nonprofit organizations seem to have a particular focus of late on leadership development. Millions of dollars are expended annually for training sessions, retreats, and various projects purporting to train volunteer and professional “leaders.” As one who has been both student and teacher in a variety of these programs, and as the CEO of an institute dedicated to the training of organizational leadership, I would like to offer a few observations on the arena often referred to as leadership training and development. I begin with three (of what Jim Collins likes to call) “brutal facts.”

  • Calling everyone who holds a titled position in the organization a leader, because doing so makes people feel better, is not the best way to develop leaders.
  • Equating leadership development with moves management (the process of moving a prospective donor from cultivation to solicitation) is a better development strategy than an effective approach to training leaders.
  • Organizational information sessions, designed to educate the donor base, build esprit de corps, and promote the good work of the enterprise are critical to the institution’s future; they are not, however, leadership training and development.

There are, of course, many reasons why charitable groups choose to conflate educational activities, propaganda, and fundraising, with leadership programming. In today’s philanthropic environment volunteers of any sort are difficult to come by. People love to be appreciated and feel important, and nothing says treasured more than the “L” word. A similar dynamic is at play with regard to fundraising. When a contributor moves from level x to level y, we thank her for her commitment and the example she has set for others. In too many cases, however, it is only a very short leap before she suddenly becomes a “leader.”

The great teacher of leadership, Ronald Heifetz, author of Leadership Without Easy Answers observes this phenomenon in all manner of organizations. “In our everyday language, we often equate leadership with authority. We routinely call leaders those who achieve high positions of authority even though, on reflection, we readily acknowledge the frequent lack of leadership they provide.”  When we do this in our nonprofit groups we cheapen the value of real leadership and fail to provide the training and development our institutions so desperately need.

There are several things to keep in mind when contemplating a leadership development program worthy of the name.

  • Know your audience and be clear about your desired outcomes. Before you start hiring a faculty, arranging presenters, and the like, you must be able to articulate what the sought learning outcomes are for the audience you have in mind.
  • Don’t try to do too much in too short a period. Leadership training is a protracted process. Leaders don’t get made in half-day retreats or even in weekly sessions over a few months.
  • Real-world opportunities to practice leadership are essential. Leadership is not a theoretical exercise; classroom activities are necessary but not sufficient.
  • Mentoring and coaching are essential to every leadership training experience.
  • Participants must be given the chance to learn about and reflect upon their own individual leadership styles if they are to grow as leaders.
  • Feedback and observation are critical components in the process of increasing a leader’s effectiveness.

While once there may have been a debate as to whether leaders were born or made, today most everyone who studies leadership understands that leaders are made. The notion that only a select few endowed with special traits are capable of leading was debunked long ago. A far more expansive and liberating view of leadership obtains in our day. This does not mean, however, that every leadership training and development program lives up to its claim. It is essential for today’s not-for-profit groups to be honest about the differences between volunteer development activities and real leadership training. Doing so will make a palpable and enduring difference in the future of your organization.


Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. He can be reached at