Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about management and leadership as well as diversity and other important issues for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays. Thompson of The Diversity Movement was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2023 Southeast Award winner

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Ending one calendar year and looking to the future has many senior executives thinking about goals and aspirations. We ask ourselves if we accomplished what we hoped. Those answers lead to specifics regarding successful initiatives and the problems with projects that didn’t quite live up to expectations. 

This kind of ongoing evaluation is critical in growing as a leader, particularly as we build self-awareness, a key skill in making well-informed decisions, building trusting teams and addressing the subtle influence of hidden biases (personally and organizationally). In developing LeaderView, The Diversity Movement’s state-of-the-art leadership assessment tool based on cultural competency across executive teams, we identified self-awareness as one of the seven essential traits for individuals to understand their own strengths and areas for growth within the team context. 

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson

When I reflect on self-awareness, the practice that fuels all my accomplishments is competitive learning. This means I drive myself for continuous improvement, seek out mentors and coaches to help me grow, and embrace the fact that I can always get better. Competitive learning pushes me toward my personal best, a blend of agility plus hustle. 

A major part of my learning journey is focused on leadership development. From my role as a leader at The Diversity Movement and on boards of directors to the work I do one-on-one with executives and as an adviser for leadership teams globally, I am always searching for new information about how people become stronger, more agile leaders, as well as how we train them to reach greater successes. 

What I am currently seeing – both in the U.S. and globally – is that there is a disconnect between the results promised to the organizations and individuals spending money on leadership training programs and whether or not these programs are effective, based on what employers are saying about their managers and leaders. 


The market for leadership training and development is colossal. According to research firm Global Insight Services, the global leadership development program market eclipsed $70 billion at the end of 2022 and is expected to grow more than 10% annually to reach $185.2 billion in 2032. 

If we were to add the money spent on everything from undergraduate business degrees, MBA programs and the mountains of content created on the topic, $70 billion might seem like loose change. For deeper insight into this challenge, we can look at The Chartered Management Institute’s nationwide study of UK management and leadership, published this past fall. 

The report created quite a bit of controversy, based on the research uncovering that 82% of those who became managers “have not had any formal management and leadership training.” They were labeled “accidental managers,” individuals who were promoted to run a team based on being “popular, good at their job or happen to be available to take charge.” Strikingly, this group included 26% of those people identified as senior managers and leaders. 

Just as we see in the U.S., the British organization’s research revealed that bad leadership practices “have a deep impact on employees including on their motivation, satisfaction and likelihood to leave their job.” Half of workers who rated their managers as “ineffective” planned to leave their jobs, versus just 21% of those who said their managers were “effective.” And, the pressure of this type of environment is also having consequences on managers with one-third claiming they are “likely to leave” in the next 12 months.

While the challenges were clear in the survey of 5,500 employees and managers, CMI also uncovered the value in building a strong leadership development program. “Time and again, we heard a similar message,” the report explained. “Good managers are the difference between high-performing teams and under-performing groups of individuals; between projects that get done and those that don’t; between organizations that succeed and those that fail.” 

The bottom-line for CMI boils down to an equation that many U.S. companies could also identify with: “Ineffective managers = ineffective organizations.” Among U.K. organizations, only 27% of workers found their managers “highly effective,” while 18% rated them “somewhat” or “highly ineffective.” In a highly competitive global economy, no British organization can afford to have one-in-five of its managers deemed inadequate. 


I am focusing on CMI’s U.K. findings as a way to examine global leadership outside America, but it is not as if the situation is much rosier here. I’ve written at length about the challenges organizations face, from mental health and well-being issues to gender inequality. The list goes on and on. 

Given the state of leadership – the gap between the effort to develop and train people for managerial ranks and the so-so results – offering suggestions for improvement may seem futile. However, I am offering competitive learning as a step in the right direction, the kind of rigorous program that can result in increased self-awareness and enhanced business acumen. 

As leaders, we are constantly being evaluated, so we have to adapt based on new and often changing information. Building an agile mindset, bolstered by critical and contextual thinking skills, is something every person asked to lead can do. 

In addition to formal training programs, there are unlimited learning opportunities across digital and multimedia platforms, which extend the chance to learn into groups and individuals who may have been cut off from them in the past. From this perspective, a commitment to competitive learning moves from “nice to have” to a primary driver of leadership acuity. 

Being a competitive learner entails fostering a culture steeped in teamwork, critical thinking and a sense of belonging in the workplace. We have to ensure the right people are in the room, then listen to and respect their contributions. Competitive learning may not surmount every obstacle that leaders encounter, but it can be a foundational pillar, laying the groundwork for innovation, adaptability and sustained success.

About the Author 

Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 SE Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement to fundamentally transform the modern workplace through diversity-led culture change. TDM was recently acquired by Workplace Options, which brings holistic wellbeing services to more than 79 million people in more than 200 countries and territories across the globe. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics. 

Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at info@donaldthompson.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.