What is Leader Development?

Leader development can be any training, education, or development activity undertaken for the purpose of enhancing one’s leadership effectiveness. This endeavor can take many forms and is important to implement at all levels of leadership in an organization.


The amount of time and money organizations are investing in training and development continues to grow. According to Forbes, the global training industry is valued at $366 billion. In the US approximately $166 billion spent on leader development. MarketWatch has also estimated that the global training industry will grow at a rate of 14.81% between 2018-2022. Since companies place such a high importance on training and development, especially leadership development, firms naturally expect this to translate into tangible and impactful results in the form of increased profitability and lowered expenses such as employee turnover. However, recent survey results suggest otherwise.

Not the Best Results

Despite these investments, over 75% of organizations reported a leadership gap between the current knowledge, skills, and abilities of leaders and those required to successfully execute on business strategy (Thornton, 2018). Organizations struggle to build effective development programs that bolter skills both with leaders and with the organizations themselves. A recent McKinsey study showed only 11% of executives believe their leadership development programs have achieved the desired results and 7% of Fortune CEOs believe their companies are building effective global leaders (Feser et al., 2017). These disappointing numbers can be attributed to a lack of appropriate context and sustainment training.

For example, many training programs and experiences require leaders to leave their normal work environment in order to attend in-residence courses in a controlled space. Unfortunately, once they return to their organic work environment, they’re quickly inundated with priorities that don’t lend themselves to allowing the leader to utilize, practice, or continue developing their leadership lessons. Simply put- you can’t take someone out of their environment, provide leadership training, and return them to the same work environment expecting your teachings to have a lasting impact. This is especially true with our younger generations who are beginning to occupy the leadership ranks.

As the collective presence of Millennials continues to grow in the market, they’re also beginning to step into leadership roles. However, 63% of Millennials reported that their leadership skills weren’t being fully developed (Thornton, 2018). Furthermore, their values are rewriting the script on leader development. They value interpersonal communication, servant leadership, and flexible, rather than hierarchical, organizational structures. Therefore, Millennials tend to value ongoing personal feedback with a mentor/leader, leadership training in their organic environments, and the latitude to pursue a variety of options as it pertains to their development. These generational values and norms conflict with the Boomer and Gen-X classroom methods of leader development and will only continue to take root in business as younger generations continue to take the leadership reins.

These evolutions can be drawn back to one primary and highly influential culprit- changing social norms conflicting with the status quo. We’ve seen how new generations, the advent of technology, and a shifting global landscape have produced new ways of viewing the world and engaging in the market. As a result, companies can no longer rely on the “tried and true” methods of developing leaders. They must adjust to the new norms and get creative on ways to develop leaders within the organization, especially since Millennials and Generation-Z will continue to fill these positions as time goes on.

Leader development processes must take the individual into consideration by making programs and experiences flexible and relevant for different, real-world, contexts. For example, any sustained leader development initiative should be training experiential, influence the leaders’ “being” and not just their “doing”, place the learnings into its wider, systemic context, and utilize facilitators who act less as experts and more like Sherpas (Rowland, 2016).

To make leader development experiential, experiences should replicate the precise context and experience the leader sees on a daily basis. Rowland refers to this as the “living laboratory” that allows the leader to receive more relevant information specific to their circumstances. Also, organizations should encourage their leaders to seek external experiences with relevant networks to further their professional development and bring fresh ideas into the organization.

Influencing a leader’s “being” instead of their “doing” is another important aspect of any leader development program. It’s meant to target the inner emotional and mental states that determine one’s confidence and comfort in handling unpopular, difficult, and complicated circumstances. This is vital to a leader’s success since it builds their confidence, self-awareness, relatability, and empathic leadership capabilities. The result is are leaders who inspire others, lead with happy hearts, and can empathize with their teams during pleasant and difficult circumstances.

An organization’s leader development program should also strive to embed this training in the wider, systemic context. Rowland describes the “parallel universe” syndrome where classroom training promotes a certain mindset or skillset that isn’t always applicable to the environment from which the leader came. However, this presents an opportunity for a leader development program to shape the future capacity for agility in the organization. Just as leader development can benefit the individual, the individuals can benefit the organization by helping shape the future of the organization during their training evolutions. This feedback loop can serve to stress-test the viability of the company’s long-term strategy and direction.

Finally, leveraging facilitators to function as Sherpas rather than experts is a vital attribute of a successful leader development program. Be them staff or third-party instructors, the ideal facilitators should be flexible enough to skillfully develop leaders in different group dynamics, contexts, and boundaries. They should also be able to promote a psychologically safe training environment regardless of the size, location, or school of thought they encounter. Rowland points out that the organization would be wise to continually develop their facilitators to ensure they can keep up with change and adjust the leader development efforts to remain relevant in the long run.

Overall, an organization’s leader development initiatives should be continuously evaluated and refined to remain relevant and effective for the leaders who seek to benefit from them. Leader development should be focused on the individual, be applicable in their specific contexts, and be robust enough to add value to all areas of the organization. The leader development initiative should contain elements of personal and professional growth and include specific training points for leaders in their unique contexts.

Organizations should also view leader development as an opportunity for the company to continually audit and update their strategic vision. Just as leader development benefits the individual, it can also serve as a continuous feedback loop to ensure the company’s strategy and vision remains relevant and competitive. This way, leader development benefits everyone and remains an effort in the best interest of long-term shareholder value.

Learn more about how gothamCulture can help with your organization’s leader development process with Executive Coaching, Leadership Learning & Development, and Leadership Team & Board Alignment.

O’Flaherty, J. (2020, January 29) What is Leader Development? Retrieved from https://gothamculture.com

For more information on this topic and more read our organizational culture and leadership articles.


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