Why Traditional Executive Leadership Training Needs to Change

How we train leaders today cannot be stuck in the same approach we used ten years ago.

Something has to change!

Our training methods should reflect the leadership of this decade and mirror the leadership skills of the future.

Leadership is largely an emotional and human-centered activity

Over the last decade, organizations have been moving away from an autocratic management style in favor of a coach approach to leadership. Training should be delivered in a way that models the emotional and socially intelligent approach companies need to effectively lead their teams.

5 ideas to make your training more fitting for today’s leaders

In leadership training, I often share the surprising results of one of Google’s most important research projects. In 2012 Google set out to discover what makes a high-performing team. They called it “Project Aristotle,” inspired by the Greek philosopher’s quote – “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Researchers were determined to discover a kind of “secret recipe” for successful teams at Google. Shockingly, after two years of research involving 180 teams, Google found that what really mattered was less about who was on the team, and more about how the team worked together. Google’s researchers concluded that the number one factor for high-performing teams was psychological safety.

Psychological safety means team members feel safe taking risks and being vulnerable in front of each other without the fear of being embarrassed, ridiculed, or facing any other consequences. How did those teams foster that environment? It was the creation of group norms and behavioral standards that governed the dynamics of the best teams and which was key to their high performance.

After discussing the importance of psychological safety and ways to create it in the training, we then design a set of agreements on how we want to behave with each other during the course to create a safe and brave space in which we can maximise our learning. We call that the Designed Alliance. This candid, co-created conversation at the beginning of every training helps us align on what’s important for everyone in the room and trains leaders in a crucial tool for getting the best out of their teams.

The New Approach: Creating agreements with participants

The Designed Alliance is a tool to establish group “rules” and behavioural standards. It creates a safe space for participants to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other during the training. To be successful today, leaders need to focus on facilitating change rather than managing it. This new approach provides an environment where people feel they can share their ideas, challenge the status quo and have courageous conversations.

The Old Approach: Status Quo

Allowing an environment in which people are scared of being wrong, fearful of offending someone in the room where participants prefer to play it safe and hold back rather than share. Creating an environment in which people are fearful of saying or asking something that makes them look bad or feel they need to fit in and go along with the status quo.

The Training Setup

A few months ago I arrived at a large international organization to deliver a one-day leadership course and found they had given me a training room with rows of fixed chairs in a theatre-style setup, with a “stage” from which I was to facilitate the course. I turned to the staff showing me the room and said, “I’m so sorry, I cannot facilitate our leadership course here.” He looked at me surprised, and insisted that it was the only space available. I was adamant we had to find somewhere, anywhere else, to hold the training.

We wound up in the basement of the building. And no, it wasn’t a punishment. The room was spacious, modern, and colorful. We missed having windows, but the training was a great success. We sat in a large circle, with no tables to create barriers between us, with everyone able to see each other. Colleagues who had worked together for many years connected in ways they had never done before.

The New Approach: Sitting in Circles

 Because organizations have moved toward a more democratic style of leadership that encourages everyone to participate in processes and to share their opinions, training should be done the same. A circular seating arrangement isn’t hierarchical, so people are more likely to feel seen, heard, and valued. They’re also more likely to feel comfortable sharing their opinions and ideas.

The Old Approach: Sitting in Rows

Sitting in rows, around tables, and other traditional arrangements evoke the opposite response, like the setup where a speaker stands on a stage at the front of a room to lecture a group.

Vulnerability and Leading by Example

In training I share something personal with the group in the first hour and a half.  By opening up right away, I model authenticity and vulnerability and create permission for others to do the same as soon as possible. I often talk about my kids or something I’m struggling with. I notice how people soften and lean forward in their chairs as they listen to me. In my imagination, they’re saying to themselves “Oh, this training is going to be different.” One of the best practices of the US Navy Seals is to huddle up after every mission regardless of whether or not it was successful, “leave their egos at the door,” and talk about what happened. It is the highest-ranking officer who speaks first, sharing where he believes he failed and what he could have done better. Leaders today need to show their own shortcomings, struggles, and fears to make it safe for others to be vulnerable too.

The New Approach: Model Vulnerability

The human-entered trainer admits mistakes, shares personal challenges, and seeks feedback from the group. We use failures as learning opportunities. Researcher Brené Brown’s work explains that we all struggle with things, but sharing them is not a sign of weakness. It is a compelling way to build trust. Vulnerability is an essential component of leadership. It brings out the human side of the professional. It allows us to connect with others, build relationships, and open up. Leaders today need to model the behavior they want to see in their team members. And in our training, when we lead by example, we don’t just nudge our participants to “take off their masks”, we actively demonstrate that. 

The Old Approach: The Infallible Leade

Traditional trainers are strong figures who do not show weaknesses. They are stoic, professional, striving for perfection, and visibly in control.

Creative Expression

In my courses, I ask participants to write their favorite songs on a flipchart and then I create a playlist for them. On all the breaks throughout the training, I play their music.

Psychologists explain that our favorite songs repeatedly activate the reward system in our brain, releasing dopamine. Dopamine influences focus, concentration, memory, mood, and motivation. We’ve all had the experience of a certain song that makes us feel good and that we want to listen to again and again. Researchers have found that listening to music is more effective than prescription medications in reducing anxiety. I like to include in our designed alliance, if everyone agrees, that if participants come in late after a break they have to dance. Not only does dance stimulate mood-boosting chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin, it helps create a sense of community (people always join in the dance of a late participant).

The New Approach: Creative Expression

Incorporate creative expression in your training. Whether it’s music, colors, drawing, or dancing, countless studies show that creative expression can reduce stress and anxiety while also improving general well-being. I get leaders to step out of their comfort zones, relax and enjoy themselves while learning, which is the kind of environment they need to foster to bring out the best in their employees.

The Old Approach: Almost nobody likes a lecture

Training in which you’re speaking longer than 10 minutes or having little or no interaction with participants tends to be a giant snore. Studies suggest that people being “presented to” only pay attention for about ten minutes, after which their concentration and engagement disappear. When participants already have high levels of stress, long-winded training leads to them feeling anxious and disconnected.

Well-being and Positivity

The PERMA model created by Martin Seligman, who is considered the father of positive psychology, emphasizes the role of positive emotions such as hope and gratitude in our well-being.

I start my courses with a “speed dating” exercise. Of course, it’s not about dating. What it has in common with speed dating is that participants are given a few minutes to connect with each person in the room. They answer questions like, “What advice did your parents give you that’s still with you today?” Or, “If you were a superhero what superpowers would you like to have?” Or, “If you were the CEO of your company, what would you change?” I also have participants give each other positive acknowledgments and constructive feedback throughout the training. All this creates a positive vibe in the room and trains leaders in important skills they need to practice with their teams. The more positive the environment during the leadership training, the more engaged, open, and participative the leaders. They need to know how to create a culture of well-being and positivity in their organizations.

The New Approach: Fun & Effective Exercises

Create exercises in which leaders have fun and practice gratitude, positive acknowledgments, and constructive feedback throughout the training.

The Old Approach: Task-Oriented Exercises

 Focused on task-oriented exercises and not open to new ideas and ways of doing things.

Collaborative Learning

 I often ask participants to share experiences and solutions in small groups, then summarize the learning and choose a spokesperson to share the new insights when they come back to the larger group. Leaders need to be comfortable sharing their experiences, learning from their team members, and collaboratively reflecting on the best solutions for their organizations.

A 2016 article in HBR said, “Corporations are victims of the great training robbery.” The article goes on to talk about how senior executives and their HR teams continue to pour money into training, year after year, in an effort to trigger organizational change. But something is not working. If we make certain training is delivered in a way that stimulates and fosters emotional well-being, models what leaders need to duplicate with their teams, and creates an exciting learn-by-doing space, we will go from “training robbery” to training excellence.

Michelle Kempton

Michelle Kempton

Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC), Master Certified Coach by the International Coaching Federation & founder of Kempton Coaching & Training. Michelle is passionate about leadership development and organizational change.


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