(photo illustration by HyunJu Chappell/The Washington Post; original image by bigstock photo )

It’s not an illusion.

Just weeks after the General Services Administration sparked controversy for hiring mind readers and clowns to take part in a lavish training event in Las Vegas, it turns out that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posted, and has now cancelled, an ad seeking a magician motivational speaker for a June leadership conference.

The agency’s ad, which was cancelled after news of it appeared in Government Executive magazine and was criticized by lawmakers, called for “physical energizers, magic tricks, puzzles, brain teasers, word games, humor and teambuilding exercises.” The performer was asked to create “a unique model of translating magic and principals of the psychology of magic, magic tools, techniques and experiences into a method of teaching leadership.” An NOAA spokesperson told the Post that no speakers had been confirmed or hired and that the “process surrounding the solicitation” had been referred to NOAA officials for review.

What’s most remarkable about the listing is not the cost, even if critics of government waste might balk at the price tag for the magician, which has been reported as $3,500 and $5,000. That’s not that much money for a training program, at least in comparison to the GSA event. And it’s not the sheer absurdity of deciding to hire a magician for a government leadership conference in the wake of the GSA scandal, even if that’s pretty astounding, too. (One would think the opprobrium the GSA has experienced would stop any thoughtful meeting planner, at least for the foreseeable future, from trying to hire someone for a government leadership conference who combines motivational speaking with anything other than, well, speaking — but the ad was reportedly placed on May 1, weeks after the GSA scandal erupted.)

Instead, what I’m really trying to get my head around is what magic tricks have to do with “the theory, techniques and tools of effective management and leadership,” or how someone with a deck of cards and a microphone can help government managers improve their “executorship (getting results), entrepreneurialism (risk-taking), ethical behavior (applying rules and regulations), and emotional intelligence (building productive relationships).” The latter is a reference to the work around multiple intelligences by the respected Harvard professor Howard Gardner, who as far as I know has nothing to do with vanishing bird cages or finding coins behind the ear. The ad requests that candidates be “experienced at presenting the work of Dr Howard Gardiner [sic] on multiple intelligences and how this relates to creativity and obtaining team solutions.”

It’s certainly possible that, as one leader of a watchdog group said to the Associated Press, the ad seemed to be directed at a specific individual who has developed a niche linking magic with leadership and emotional intelligence. The world of motivational speakers is filled with people selling ways to make the often dry topic of leadership more fun. (Building bicycles can be a team-building activity!)

But spare us all the magic tricks. Leave out the koosh balls and the trust games, the wacky team-building exercises and the ropes courses. While they may be good fun, I’d hazard a guess that most busy people find them a silly distraction from all the work they have to get done rather than a real opportunity to learn and grow.

Instead, put managers to work solving real problems — helping a nonprofit develop a solution for a funding crisis, getting time out of their day-to-day jobs to work on an interesting agency problem that needs fresh thinking, or volunteering with a local group to build camaraderie. Leadership development isn’t like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It happens not when people sit in a room and listen to motivational speakers, but when they’re forced to stretch themselves in new ways and take real action on real problems.

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