Sunday, September 29, 2013

Of Leadership training and Corporate Rain dance

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a report which said that in the current difficult economic scenario, Indian companies are investing more in leadership training programs for their senior managers. The ‘espoused interpretation’ for this was that it will help the senior managers to be better leaders, enabling them to respond more effectively to the challenging scenario. While this was certainly a possibility, it did make me wonder if there are other interpretations possible. That is where rain dance comes in.

Let us begin by taking a closer look at the terms.
Rain dance is a ritual that is intended to invoke rain. The rain dance was common among tribes who lived in regions that received very little rain. Since the little rain they did receive was essential for their survival, they felt compelled to something to invoke rain (to influence their destiny). The result was rain dances. Over a period of time, intricate rain dance rituals were developed (that were supposed to do a better job when it comes to rainmaking). While there is no empirical evidence that rain dances caused rain, they did serve other useful purposes like giving them hope, enabling them to feel that they have some degree of control over their destiny/environment, deepening relationships among the members of the tribe etc.  
Leadership training involves all the training programs (Instructor-Led-Training programs) that employees are sent to with the purpose of making them ‘better leaders’ (whatever that might mean). These can be internal or external training programs (often designed/delivered by consultants/business schools). They are usually conducted off site (away from the pressures and distractions of regular work) and are often very expensive.

Corporate rain dance would mean rituals (events/ceremonies/programs) in corporate life that are designed to achieve an essential business objective (better business results/business survival in difficult times etc.) without sufficient empirical evidence that the ritual actually leads to the intended outcome. Going back to the report on the increased investment in leadership development programs, it made me wonder if they (at least to some extent) constitute some sort of corporate rain dance. Of course, there are other examples of corporate rain dance, including many types of ‘strategic business planning meetings’!
I have nothing against rituals in corporate life. Businesses are run by human beings and rituals have always played an important role in human societies. Please see ‘Accelerated learning and Rites of passage’ for an example of how to leverage the power of rituals in business organizations. It is just that we should be aware of what they can and cannot do when we are investing in them.

Leadership training is a Multi-Billion-Dollar industry. There is also a huge amount of literature on ‘leadership’. I have no intention to get into a detailed discussion on ‘leadership’ here. (Please see ‘Of leaders and battle-scars’, ‘The leadership sandwich’ & ‘Reasons, Rationalizations Collective Delusions’ for some of my thoughts). For the purpose of this post, I will just raise the top five questions that have been bothering me("The best fool can ask more than the wisest man can tell" J).
  1. If ‘learning’ is defined as ‘sustained change in behavior’ how much empirical evidence exists that ‘learning’ results from leadership training programs?
  2. There are many people in top management positions who speak eloquently about the great leadership training programs their companies have. However, I have rarely heard anyone of them talking about a particular leadership training program they have attended that made them (or played a big part in making them) who they are now.
  3.  If ‘leadership development’ goes much beyond ‘leadership training’ (and if leadership is supposed to be learned ‘on the job’ supported by coaching) then why is most of the money/effort is concentrated on ‘offsite’ leadership training? 
  4. To what extent are the designs of leadership training programs based on a deep understanding of the concept of leadership? If the design is based on a particular leadership model/theory, has enough effort been made to check the empirical validity of the theory/model?
  5. If the underlying model of leadership goes beyond the traits and leadership style of the leader, to focus on the relationship between the leader and the followers, then why emphasis is only on training the leaders? Can any form of leadership (including thought leadership) exist without followers? 
Now, let us look at another type of ‘corporate rain dance’ that happens frequently in the domain of leadership development : redesigning leadership competency frameworks & then redesigning all the leadership training programs based  on the new competency framework. Here also the underlying belief (that leads to the rain dance) is that by changing the leadership competency framework we can build better leaders and thereby improve business performance. Sometimes, this can also be a case of 'Training the Victim'. A few years ago, I heard (from reliable sources) about a global company, that changed its leadership competency framework because the new CEO said something like ‘Leaders should Lead’ in a meeting with the HR Leadership team. In response to that statement from the CEO, the HR Head ordered redesign of the leadership competency framework & all the leadership training programs based on the same, spending Millions of Dollars. It also ensured that HR people at the global corporate office (who were under the threat of losing their jobs) kept their jobs and (as the company was a global giant) it contributed to the GDP of many countries in terms of spend on downstream work like ‘Train the Trainer programs’, reprinting of program material & of course putting the leaders through the newly developed training programs.

I am not saying that one should not redesign leadership competency frameworks. It is very easy to find fault with any leadership competency framework and hence no one can argue against the need to redesign the same. The trouble is just that the new framework might also have an equal number of (but possibly different) problems. Hence, unless there is a very clear difference between the new and the old leadership competency framework (that too very clearly aligned to a key strategic priority), the Return On Investment is unlikely to be positive. I also think that ‘competency frameworks are only an intermediate stage’ and that one needs to go beyond them..
Now, let us come back to leadership training programs. What exactly am I trying to say?

One does pick up useful insights, ideas and concepts from these programs. They provide a welcome break from the unpleasant realities of work. They can also act as some kind of signalling mechanism - to communicate (to the participants & to the significant others around them) that some people have been identified as leaders.

Like rain dance, they provide an opportunity connect more deeply with colleagues, provide new hope to the participants & provide satisfaction to the business head that something is being done to improve the business situation. The participants might also see them as recognition/reward– especially if the program is offered only to a select few/if the program is considered to be a prestigious one/if the program is an expensive one (remember, it is tax efficient also - for both the employer and the employee!) . The program might even have some placebo effect on leadership behaviors!J 

Going back to another beneficial dimension of rituals, leadership training programs can also act as 'rites of passage'/'initiation rites' to leadership-  especially if they (like initiation rites in tribal societies) involve doing 'dangerous things'; this danger can be either psychological (like doing something silly in front of a group) or physical (like what happens in some of the outbound training programs) - as they help in transitioning to a new self!! Hence, just as rain dance served a useful purpose in tribal societies for many centuries, leadership training programs can also serve a useful purpose in business organizations – even if that purpose is not the same as the espoused purpose!

If, the rain dance (leadership training program) is not leading to rain (developing better leaders), the organization should seriously consider whether to invest more in 'making the dance better' (e.g. by adding more modules to the leadership training program) or to explore other ways for rainmaking. Improving the dance can add to its value as a ritual up to a point (but not beyond that). Of course, it is possible that some of the other popular ways of rainmaking (e.g. 360 degree feedback) might also turn out to be 'rain dances'! But some of them (e.g. putting people through roles designed to provide a higher learning potential & helping them to derive meaning from their experience in those roles through coaching) might actually work!!!   

Any comments/ideas?  


Bhavna said...

The corporate rain dance ... How appropriate a name. The interesting thing in what you have written is the underlying note that doing things for 'good form' is a waste of resources. Rituals are essential but more important is an understanding of why. After all, intent without action is as meaningless as action without intent. At the same time, I also believe that in this time of turbulence, rituals lend some stability, they bring in a sense of continuity - when all else seems to be continuously changing. Be it a common language (a competency framework) or a common action path (activities that are engaged in) something is required to keep the fabric of the organization together.

Indroneil said...

Prasad ...

While I echo most of what you have said, I must also submit, that in my 12 plus years of leadership enablement for my clients, I have come across ones who have been clear about the objective and business-relevance of interventions and pushed us beyond the edge to find and figure out:

1. What could be the real (not just stated) learning needs of their leaders at different levels
2. What are some of the deep seated mind sets / conditionings that are required to worked with to unleash the desired leadership performance
3. What does it take to get them ready to learn - get them open Natal Plus Travel and Receptive
4. How do they get to know their REAL potentials, not what they are psyched to believe, to help them justify their roles and finally
5. How do we bring about transformation - inside-out - through the intervention so that not only learning but its application too is self driven and self managed.

There are more than 5000 managers / leaders who have gone through processes which addressed the above needs. And it's no mean number. Thanks to such business-focused clients we have, over a decade, developed and proven multiple leadership frameworks and approaches, which to say the least, are not by the book.

And this is perhaps where the perpetration of rituals come - the positional power not ready to accept something that is radically unfamiliar, something that does not conform to ones limits of theoretical knowledge.

Here's a blog post that will add on to your observations:

And here's an article that captures a case-study of how I managed to enable unleashing of leadership potential amongst 120 middle managers and got them to apply the same to create exponential value in their immediate contexts:

I am glad to find a co-warrior in you and would love to explore synergies to co-create impactful solutions for the industry.

Prasad Kurian said...

@ Bhavna

Thank you very much. It has been argued that you need an 'unchanging core' to effectively deal with a fast changing environment. To me, change and stability are like Yin & Yang in dynamic equilibrium!

Prasad Kurian said...

@ Indroneil

Thank you. I do believe that change is possible – both at the individual & organization level. My point is just that when it comes to deep/significant change in complex system (like humans), it becomes difficult to ‘manage the change’ in a mechanistic manner. Yes, unfolding of ‘human potential’ can be encouraged & supported. Problems occur when you try to control the ‘unfolding process’ too much - to take it to the direction & pace you want!

Unknown said...

Hi Prasad, good to read this. I guess you are right- if you look at leadership development programmes as a corporate ritual, you may feel good. In that sense,they instill hope, add to the notion of employee development and create bonds amongst cohorts. As a ritual, they are pretty good, aren't they. Maybe the situation becomes murkier, when we start expecting real development from these programmes!

Prasad Kurian said...

@ Krish Shankar

Thank you very much for reading my blog and for your comment. Yes, when it comes to leadership development, IF our expectations are beyond 'benefits that can be obtained from rituals' (though they are quite substantial!)THEN we need to go much beyond leadership training.

R Anand said...

Very provocative Prasad! One of the benefits of rituals is it allows people to take a clean break from the past. HiPo's who come to this "rain dance" can choose to believe that they can behave differently now! More importantly, it tells the other colleagues that a few have been annointed and inspire followership! Rituals impart a certain legitimacy to an otherwise tentative approach. My guess is that more than half the world's leadership positions are inherited and it is still a good world to live in. The trick is moderating the leader-member dynamic and exhorting the leader to be to think fresh, to try something different

Prasad Kurian said...

@ R Anand

Great to see your comment here. Yes, I agree! Leadership training programs (if properly publicized/conducted with a lot of ‘song and dance’) can not only encourage the leader to 'act like a leader' but also prompt the followers to 'look at him/her as a leader'. Hence, as you have pointed out, this can have a beneficial effect on the 'leader-follower' dynamic (which, to me, is the core of leadership).

Unknown said...

Hi Sir,
Came across your blog by chance. Good to see such a well maintained blog. I run a business blog in which many authors contribute their articles, would you be interested in sending your articles? Please keep in mind though that the articles you send us cannot be posted in any other site/blog and would be posted with full credits along with a short bio and link to your blog. If you would be interested, drop us an email at

Vidya said...

Interesting and thought provoking!

I have many thoughts, but let me share only one for now. Why is the corporate so obsessed with numbers and empirical data? Don't we all know that it tells only part of the truth? So much lies beneath the facts and figures...

Second, Prasad so much of what we do in everyday life is not data based. Caught in a difficult situation, a person may even run to an astrologer and much money spent there. A mother who has kids with reading or maths issues may tow them to and fro to kumon classes and still not be sure it helps. People do pujas (similar to your rain dance now) to alleviate issues in finances....

Honestly, rationality is overemphasized in the corporate world....and believe me it works only at the face of it. I know enough business leaders who get vastu advice...

I don't have an opinion for or against any of the above practices. As long as these rites, rituals, rain dance instill a sense of hope, boost morale and help the individual cope with stress, it works for me. And many of these leadership workshops do manage to do that.

Prasad Kurian said...

@ Vidya

Thank you very much. Yes, I agree that rationality & numbers are overemphasized in the corporate world.

To me, this is because business organizations are expected to be rational enterprises whose success is measured mainly in terms of numbers (profitability , shareholder returns etc.). In practice, this might not actually be so (see ). Still rationality is an ideal that business organizations are supposed to work towards and the current interpretation of rationality in the corporate context is oriented towards numbers/empirical data.

It seems reasonable to ask if a particular investment (say in a training program) would lead to better business performance (measured by the numbers mentioned above). Yes - there can be many links in the chain of causality. Some of these intermediate links do involve ‘softer’ parameters and that is where the ‘psychological reality’ and hence the ‘rites & rituals’ come in.

In a way, the basic premise of behavioral science is that there is some correlation (if not a direct causation) between ‘psychological reality’ and ‘physical reality’ & that by understanding, predicting and influencing the ‘psychological reality’ we can influence ‘physical reality’.

While in our roles as individuals (where we are the CEOs of ourselves) we can go mainly by a ‘non-data based approach’ (if we prefer to do so), in our roles as corporate managers (who are accountable for the numbers mentioned above) we do need to focus on numbers and their measurement even if they tell only part of the story. Of course, we should do whatever we can to reveal the complete story by doing some sort of ‘triangulation’ of both ‘what can be measured’ and ‘what can’t be measured’!

Unknown said...

A very different view to the one we take over here.I appreciate the sincere appreciation.Clearly explain the content of Leadership Development in the blog and keep on updating the blog. Thank you.

Prasad Kurian said...

@ Abhirup

Thank you for your kind words.

Prasad Kurian said...

@ Albert

Thank you. To me, leadership is difficult to 'define' as it is an emergent phenomenon that defies linear/algorithmic approaches :)

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Leadership Development Program India said...

Great to know about corporate rain dance. Please write more on this. Looking forward for next post on same topic.

Leadership Development Program said...

Hi Prasad, after so many years the article is still relevant. Definitely, if you look at leadership development programs as a corporate ritual, you may feel great.
Thank you so much for this article.

Shipra Upadhyay said...

Hi Prasad, as a beginner in the HR domain, this was an eye-opener for me and gives me a lot to think about. Thanks for sharing this.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you very much Shipra!