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Why Typical Leadership Exercises Aren’t Effective

By Dave Root on December 18, 2018

Any kind of training that improves individual skill and knowledge levels is valuable and worthwhile, but not all kinds of training deliver lasting and measurable results. Typical leadership exercises—lectures, case studies, and role plays—are relatively easy and economical to implement, but they often miss the mark when it comes to helping to transform individuals into exceptional leaders who can motivate teams to achieve high performance. Lectures and presentations can tell you how to lead, but they can’t teach you to do it yourself.

The leadership skills people learn with traditional exercises don’t translate to better leaders in the workplace over the long term. Traditional training has a low knowledge retention rate of 5 percent—much less than other training methods, such as experiential learning, which has a retention rate closer to 80-90 percent. Here are some of the key reasons typical leadership exercises aren’t effective:

They Don’t Build Conviction

Traditional leadership training relies upon providing lots of useful information and then adding an exercise to facilitate learning. For example, in a role-play, individuals pretend to use new skills. Unfortunately, although traditional exercises may teach skills, they often don’t inspire people or help them develop adequate conviction to apply what was taught in training in real-life situations. As a result, someone could do everything that’s expected during training and then fall back into their old routine at work because they lack the desire to change their ways, an understanding of why they should, and how exactly to do it.

Understand the significance of strong leadership skills in this guide.

Not Relevant Enough

A typical leadership exercise such as a standard one-day session often delivers the same canned content to emerging leaders as it does to seasoned leaders of teams. This means that there are often portions of training that aren’t relevant to all participants. In addition, training delivered lecture-style or as a presentation is not immersive enough to allow opportunities for individuals to connect the dots between the learning content and real-life leadership challenges. In those cases, there might be some good information being disseminated, but it’s not delivered in a way that makes it clear what is expected on the job.

Insufficient Opportunities for Practice

For training to be effective, it must provide a clear line of sight on how to apply new skills in the real world. To get there, people need ample opportunities to practice and use their newly learned skills and knowledge, so they can get comfortable enough to use them when they get back to work. Instead of putting people through a leadership exercise and later having them practice skills in real-life situations where they could put their job security on the line, provide them with the opportunity to practice in a low-risk, experiential environment. A case study, group discussion, or trust fall exercise can all be helpful in the right context, but they don’t possess enough direct relevance to the real world or give individuals enough ways to practice becoming a better leader.


Why Experiential Learning Solves All These Challenges

Experiential learning addresses several of the shortcomings of typical leadership exercises. It inspires individuals to want to be better leaders and then provides the tools, practice, and reinforcement that translate to improved leadership behaviors at work. Here’s how:


People Learn by Doing

With experiential learning, individuals learn by doing, not by sitting and watching or listening to someone talk about leadership. By being actively engaged in a themed activity that challenges individuals to adjust both their mindset and behaviors about different aspects of leadership, they begin to test and hone new skills as they learn.


Builds Conviction to Do Things Differently

For people to develop into better leaders, they need to connect with the importance of strong leadership. Experiential learning challenges individuals’ beliefs about what makes a great leader and how they can become one. It builds conviction, helping to change people’s hearts and minds, so they possess the necessary desire to change. In addition, the highly immersive experiences of experiential learning help individuals see how new behaviors will help them improve, and also allow them to become more open to change.


Relevant to a Leader’s Everyday Life

Experiential learning is most effective when it is complemented by intensive facilitator-led debriefs that help individuals see the clear connection between what they’ve learned in training and exactly how it can be used on the job. Once individuals can more easily connect the dots between what they do in training and the leadership challenges they face at work, they can form a mental roadmap for how to deal with those challenges in the real world.


There is a time and place for traditional leadership exercises, but they are limited in usefulness, particularly when the goal is to achieve sustained leadership capability within the organization. While typical leadership exercises might be easy to implement and relatively wallet-friendly, they can’t be truly effective because they miss why people should do things differently and do not provide any opportunity to learn by doing. Conversely, experiential learning is an engaging way to help leaders develop the desire to better themselves. This type of learning provides the ideal environment for them to gain new skills and knowledge, practice, and take everything they’ve learned back to the office.

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Dave joined Eagle’s Flight in 1991 after having spent a number of years with a Toronto-based accounting firm. Since that time, he has held a number of posts within the company, primarily in the areas of Operations, Finance, Legal, and IT. In his current role as both Chief Financial Officer and President, Global Business, Dave is focused on ensuring the company’s ongoing financial health as well as growing its global market share. In pursuing the latter, Dave’s wealth of experience and extensive business knowledge has made him a valued partner and trusted advisor to both our global licensees and multinational clientele.

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Founded in 1988, Eagle's Flight has earned its reputation as a global leader in the development and delivery of business-relevant, experiential learning programs that achieve specific training objectives and lasting behavior changes.

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