We have all been to numerous development courses and read the latest hit book on leadership. So we should all be great leaders by now. If not … what is missing ?

We have read the classics from Lao Tzu, Drucker or Covey. And we also read the latest gurus who distill the “five things super successful people never do”, thinking that there will be some new nugget of wisdom or a key trick that will help us (or more often, those around us) become the perfect leader.

Once outside of the training room, the MBA lecture room or the retreat resort, and after all the great exchanges and practice we had, we get back to … work ! Research shows that only 15% of participants in leadership courses really manage to implement the tools and methods they have learned and change the way they lead.

So what is missing ? Why is the world not full of inspirational leaders, with all those great books on leadership ? Individuals who are highly skilled have become so through endless practice. Sports and music teams spend most of their time practicing. We don’t have opportunities to practice leadership. Practice during the training session or retreat is not practice. It is role play or “let’s pretend”.

We cannot really practice a customer engagement meeting. What could be the impact on the customer  if something unexpected happens ? We cannot really practice how to run a better team meeting. What will the participants think if things don’t go well ? In the words of Peter Senge, we need to find “practice fields: opportunities deliberately created to practice and to reflect upon the results, rather than to take action. These are distinct from performance fields, where participants are typically expected to perform and learn at the same time.”

In my experience, Action Learning is a great setting to create practice fields. With the explicit participation of all (including customers or suppliers), and the upfront clarification that the session is about learning, participants have the possibility to apply their leadership concepts, engage and learn individually and with the others. With all the investment in leadership programs, one wonders why this final step is all too often left out …