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Make Learning Stick: Transformational Leadership Development For the Long Haul, Part I

“If you don’t use it…you’ll loose it,” is a familiar quote that, in this case, speaks to what we do or don’t do with new knowledge. Think about a skill or ability that you once had but now can’t perform (and I’m not talking about those that are “age-related,” i.e., playing sports). Software applications come to mind. There are several such apps that I would need to re-learn in order to use them. Years ago, I taught history. A refresher course (or a lot of studying) may be necessary for me to teach that subject today at the same level of competency. I’ve also known people who have mastered a second language only to loose some of that fluency when they no longer had the opportunity to speak it.

The same principle holds for professional training and development. So many such trainings fall short because what is presented in these experiences don’t stick. There are exceptions, of course. For instance, technology training in new applications organizations intend to implement, are often more effective because participants need to use it.

However, when it comes to Leadership Development training, more often than not, participants sit in training sessions for so many hours or days the purpose of which is to change their attitudes and behaviors for their good and their organizations. And, when they return to work, nothing changes, particularly for the long haul. They continue to act in the same ways–same old same old,

Kevin Druse, contributor to Forbes, says this about leadership development training:

“For too long leadership development has been approached as a one-and-done experience. Many programs take new managers, push them through an organization’s “academy,” then send them out into the world. These leaders are checked on sporadically, perhaps with a 360 or engagement survey. But little attention is paid to sustaining knowledge in the long-term.”

It’s estimated that over $300 billion is spent, globally, in leadership development. And, it appears that this trend of investing in leadership development will continue. In addition, related research finds that:

  1. 75% of 1,500 managers surveyed from across 50 organizations were dissatisfied with their company’s Learning & Development (L&D) function.

  2. 70% of employees report that they don’t have mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs.

  3. Only 12% of employees apply new skills learned in L&D programs to their jobs.

  4. Only 25% of respondents to a recent McKinsey survey believe that training measurably improved performance.

This data shows that learning and development is not only necessary for employee success, but, when provided, falls woefully short of expectations.

So, what are the reasons for this lack of retention of knowledge and the ability to translate that knowledge in changes in perspective and behavior. One concept that helps answer this dilemma is Hermann Ebbinghaus’s “Forgetting Curve.” According to this concept, we forget a lot of what learn unless we consistently apply it.

He found that when exposed to new information, we forget 56 percent in one hour, 66 percent after a day, and 75 percent after six days, if not reinforced or applied. Estimates are that if leaders aren’t doing what they are learning, they’re going to lose anywhere from 40 to 80% of what they encountered in leadership development programs.

Beyond the implications of the “Forgetting Curve,” leadership development, in particular, is challenging because leadership is a complex, human process. It’s just not the same as learning a new language or technology skill, not that these aren’t important. However, if our approach to leadership development is the same as creating and delivering language or technology skills, it won’t work.

Why? Because leadership development is ultimately about behavior change. For that kind of transformation to occur, the learning experience must reach deep into our beliefs and assumptions about leadership. Those current beliefs and assumptions must be challenged so that new ones can be established and owned. When that happens, then new behaviors that are driven by those new assumptions emerge and, hopefully, become embedded as our default responses.

That’s enough for now. In Part II of this blog subject, I will present in more detail my Transformational Learning Model. I trust I have piqued your interest in this important topic.

Stay tuned!

Jim Dittmar

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James Dittmar is the Founder, President, and CEO of the 3Rivers Leadership Institute, through which he creates and delivers training and development that is transformational. Prior to this Jim founded the award-winning Geneva College M.S. in Organizational Leadership Program and served as Chair of the Department of Leadership Studies and Director of the M.S. in Organizational Leadership Program until 2015. Should you have any questions, comments or feedback, please contact him at


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