What does it take to build leaders?

December 22, 2020


A review of the literature on leadership development

Leaders are a hot commodity in organizations. As a result, the marketplace is packed with leadership books, resources, development programs, and services. From a scholarly perspective, leadership has reemerged as a popular topic too. A quick search of ‘Leadership’ on google scholar churns out about 45,90,000 papers in just a fraction of a second and Amazon books has over 60,000 books with the word “leadership” in the title as of today.

Often people believe leadership as something reserved for individuals holding specific roles or positions of authority, and, if one does not hold any such role, one would not view themselves as a leader. However, there has been an evolution in the terminology. In the practitioner-oriented literature, the trend in the last twenty years has been overwhelmingly toward replacing the term manager with leader and it has taken on a much more positive connotation than manager. (Mccauley, 2008)

Inspite of the growing buzz around leadership, organizations around the world are failing on one key metric of success: leadership development. According to research from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), 66% of companies invest in programs that aim to identify high-potential employees and help them advance, but only 24% of senior executives at those firms consider the programs to be a success. A mere 13% have confidence in the rising leaders at their firms, down from an already-low 17% just three years ago. And at the world’s largest corporations—which each employ thousands of executives—a full 30% of new CEOs are hired from the outside. Unfortunately, many organizations haven’t figured out how to fully develop their prospective leaders. That limits these people’s advancement and eventually their engagement and, ultimately, leads to turnover (Fernández-Aráoz et al, 2017).

The cost of this inaction is greater : As competition for smart and able managers heats up around the world, organizations can’t keep ignoring and demoralizing internal talent while filling their C-suites with expensive external hires. They must learn to grow their own leaders. Key steps in turning high potentials—at all levels—into leaders are to give them the opportunities, coaching, and support they need to close the gap between their potential and their current competencies (Fernández-Aráoz et al, 2017).

A scientific approach to talent development—focused on spotting high potentials, understanding their capacity for growth in key competencies, and giving them the experience and support they need to succeed—will be an extraordinary source of competitive advantage in the coming decades. And it will help many more managers transform themselves into the great leaders they were always meant to be (Fernández-Aráoz et al, 2017).

How does one learn to be a leader?

The most frequent conceptualization is that leader development is about the development of the leader’s skills and abilities. Another conceptualization is that leader development is more about transformative change—changes in the leader’s worldviews and meaning structures. (Mccauley, 2008)
Leadership is a complex phenomenon that includes the interaction between the social environment of organizations and their leaders. Effective organizations provide personalized training and development experiences that aid emerging leaders in translating the organization’s vision, mission, and strategic plan into actions. These emerging leaders will be better prepared to successfully execute the demands required of them in future leadership positions. The importance of Leadership Development Programs is not limited to organizational executives. Employees at all levels desire additional training focused on improving leadership skills (Halt et al, 2018).

Traditional adult learning literature emphasises that mature learners prefer self-direction and active learning that draws on their own experiences, plus they also need to see the value of learning and possess a readiness to learn. These principles have been used to argue for more effective education and training, as well as being applied to on-the-job training. It seems, however, that many organisations are reconsidering their investment in broader formal education, in favour of more informal approaches to learning such as mentoring, temporary assignments, stretch assignments, and job rotation (Becker & Bish, 2017).

There are relatively few published studies designed to measure the level of change that a participant experiences from their leadership development training and program and to what degree that change radiates from the participant to the people and community they interact with. Before delving into other aspects of leadership development programs, we also want to highlight some theories on how adults learn, that gives us an insight into cracking the code to develop effective leadership development training (Black, 2009).

Bandura, a psychologist, was the first theorist to develop the concept of “imitation” as modeling behavior, where individuals learn from one another by observing behaviors and imitating them. This process, called social learning theory or “observational learning,” points out that the observation of others can help individuals learn from example. A person’s thought processes affect his or her behavior when coupled with exposure to social experiences. Additionally, adult learning takes place because the individual is motivated to learn. Then, the individual self-selects his or her learning experience because of this motivation. For adults to learn, motivating factors may occur on several levels: (a) to fulfill expectations for oneself or others, (b) to improve one’s ability to serve one’s community, or (c) for professional advancement. Finally, adults learn best by interaction through hands-on experiences related first to their knowledge (Black, 2009).

To summarise, the participant’s experiences occur through observation, modeling, cognition, and environment. The observed results are self-confidence, behavior change, motivation, action, influential relationships, and mutual purpose. These areas interact and lead to transformation within the individual, the organization, and the community (Black, 2009).

What are Leadership Development Programs?

The two primary goals of early leadership development programs were to develop leadership skills in the participants and to enhance participants’ knowledge of topics (Black, 2009).

Although individuals are the primary target of change in leader development programs, these programs may also be evaluated in terms of their impact at the group, organization, and even industry and society levels (Mccauley, 2008). Leadership development programs must be designed to support the corporate strategy as well as create both organizational and individual impact to be effective. Interestingly, HR professionals who were spoken to for the study by the society of Human Resource Management (EFMD-NOCA, 2016) perceive that the effectiveness of leadership development has a bigger impact on individual performance than on organizational performance.

Leader development programs are structured, off-the-job events that bring individuals together for shared learning and development experiences. They vary widely in their content, pedagogical techniques, purposes, and targeted outcomes. In the literature, such programs are often referred to as training programs; however, in more recent years development programs has become the more common term, reflecting an increased emphasis on leader development as a continuous process in which the leader takes an active role in developing rather than as a series of events in which knowledge and skills are taught to leaders (Mccauley, 2008). There is also a substantial body of research that indicates the positive impact of leadership development across a wide variety of settings, industries and outcomes, regardless of the theoretical perspective adopted by the researchers. (Hasson et al, 2016).

Scarcity of literature

When related work experiences are combined with formal development opportunities, many senior leaders acknowledge that an individual’s leadership capabilities can be further developed; yet, managers posit that the lack of a formal leadership development process stunts the development of new leaders (Halt et al, 2018).

Interestingly, while leadership and management attributes have been studied extensively over a long period of time, much less research has focussed on how to effectively and efficiently develop these attributes and this is argued to be a critical consideration still requiring empirical research (Becker & Bish, 2017).

Leader development programs are pervasive. In contrast, although quite a few studies of their effectiveness can be found in the literature, the proportion of programs which are systematically evaluated with results published is small. A well-designed and -implemented study of program impact requires resources and expertise, and even when an organization does invest in such evaluation, it is primarily to improve the program and maintain internal support for it; there is little motivation to publish the results (Mccauley, 2008).

The largest body of leader development research focuses on interventions designed to develop leaders. Studies typically focus on one type of intervention (rather than a comparison of different interventions), and bodies of literature have built up around each type of intervention. For each method of leader development, research tends to focus on only two broad questions: Does this type of intervention work (i.e., are leaders more developed as a result of the intervention), and under what conditions are the interventions most effective? Whereas segregating and classifying programs into different categories can help researchers ask more focused questions like are certain leader competencies better developed through a particular type of program? and are some types of programs more effective at certain points in a leader’s developmental path? (Mccauley, 2008).

Despite this evidence, and calls from scholars for intervention studies on the effects of leadership and training on organizational learning, to the best of our knowledge, no such studies are available or have been published to date. Thus, it remains unclear whether training workplace leaders can improve learning in an organization (Hasson et al, 2016).

Components of effective Leadership Development Programs

While there is little research on effectiveness, there is a large amount of writing on the components of a Leadership Development Program and there has been significant focus on the appropriate design of formal leadership development approaches. It has been argued that the day-to-day lives of leaders is where they practice leadership and this practice is “where the crux of development really resides”, suggesting that this experiential learning is playing a significant role in shaping the capabilities of managers (Becker & Bish, 2017).

Treating employees as unique individuals is necessary in a large, global company that can often seem impersonal. This finding is consistent with previous literature that suggests the importance of focusing on the individual for personal development.

Effective leadership development programs incorporate a variety of experiences and knowledge acquired over time. As a Leadership and Development professional, one must keep in mind these three factors when designing the programs (Halt et al, 2018) –

  • First is the impact on a person’s view of leadership that results from his or her childhood and adolescent development.
  • The second factor is the impact of formal education on how people learn and their perspectives on training. The first two factors are not something that can be easily changed or impacted.
  • Third, and something that is within the Leadership and Development professional’s circle of influence, is the on-the-job experiences that are critical, especially those that improve the leader’s knowledge, highlight leadership styles, and reflect the differences between leadership and management.

Leadership effectiveness tends to be elusive, which prompts organizations to better understand the behaviors that are necessary to develop in their leaders. The findings of this study have practical implications for business and industry, and include a model for Leadership Development Programs. Some important components of an effective Leadership Development Training and Program are highlighted by Halt et al (2018) are –

  • Curriculum – This study suggests that promoting teamwork and collaboration and treating employees as unique individuals, in addition to mastery of motivation and communication techniques, are essential elements in a Leadership Development Training program. Additionally, organizations are encouraged to further investigate the critical behaviors necessary for each level of leadership to ensure that their Leadership Development Training effectively meets organizational demands of leadership.
  • Time – Consistent with the literature, it is suggested that a Leadership Development Trainings span a minimum of two years. Doing so may also address issues of turnover at varying leadership levels.
  • Delivery – The curriculum designed for Leadership Development Programs should include a mixture of classroom based and online learning in addition to practical experiences.

The common Leadership Development methods that have been accepted in the literature include 360-degree feedback, executive coaching, job assignments, action learning, job rotation, networking, and mentoring. Experience is the major source of learning via training and some formal programmes. However, Leadership Development occurs also via some informal programmes, such as on-the-job mentoring and on-the-job experiences (Megheirkouni, 2016).

Based on a review of approaches to leadership training and on first-hand experience as a participant-observer in five leader development programs (presented by Mccauley, 2008), the author shared four categories of leadership development training differentiated by their targeted outcomes and methodologies :

  1. Conceptual understanding: Leader development through an increased understanding of the leadership phenomenon. This approach makes heavy use of theory, models, and case studies to explain what leaders actually do and has traditionally been the domain of universities.
  2. Skill building: Leader development through more skilled performance of leadership behaviors. This approach involves learning about the components of a skill (such as strategic visioning or communication) through descriptions, examples, and discussion, and then practicing that skill with feedback. Skill building is the most commonly employed approach to leader development and is used most frequently at supervisory and mid-management levels.
  3. Feedback: Leader development through learning about one’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader and targeting areas for improvement. This approach uses multiple methods (e.g., 360-degree surveys, personality measures, experiential exercises, and simulations) to provide feedback to participants on a wide variety of leader skills and behaviors.
  4. Personal Growth: Leader development through tapping into personal talents and increasing one’s motivation to lead. This approach often uses outdoor adventure activities and psychological exercises to stimulate personal reflection and to empower participants to take responsibility for their situations.

Leadership Development methods : formal and informal

Often when considering the most appropriate approaches, the distinction is made between formal modes of training and education, and less formal, more experiential development approaches. Formal learning is typically considered to involve learning that is organised and structured with learning objectives and involving off-the-job classroom or online coursework, workshops and seminars, or cooperative and internship experiences. Conversely, informal learning is a term typically used to describe learning that occurs outside the confines of a structured learning environment, suggesting that any learning that is not formal learning is informal (Becker & Bish, 2017).

When HR professionals were asked which types of Leadership Development activities were offered by their organizations. The vast majority (89%) indicated their organizations offered on-the-job learning. About four-fifths offered classroom/in-person courses (80%) and coaching (79%); about two-thirds offered online courses (71%) and mentoring (68%); 64% offered cross-functional training, and 56% offered leadership forums.

From a Leadership Development point of view, it is surprising that 89% of HR professionals indicated their organizations used on-the job learning as an LD activity, as there seem to be few organizations that have a structured approach to this (Research Report by EFMD, NOCA, 2016).

Inspite of the distinction between formal and informal methods, describing informal training as “what it is not” can convey a sense that informal learning is a less effective form of learning than more formal methods. On the contrary, informal learning has been argued to have beneficial outcomes such as practical and applied knowledge specifically for the individual learner, enhanced intra and inter-personal skills and cultural awareness, and learning that can be immediately applied to situations specific to the learner. A shift to less formal modes of learning is also related to the growing recognition that people start at different places in their developmental journeys as leaders and develop at different rates and in different ways over time (Becker & Bish, 2017).

It can be argued that such informal learning is critical for organisations as the pace of change continues and there is a need for organisations (and the individuals within them) to be able to adapt quickly to changing demands. Therefore, it is important that informal learning be adopted as a deliberate strategy in conjunction with more formal modes of learning in order to gain the most benefit from these learning approaches. In particular, there is an argument that seeing informal and formal learning as being polar opposites, denies the possibility that their combination may in fact be the best way to structure learning, and indeed there is a continuing move to make formal learning less formal and informal learning more formal and integrate them in a way that balances the benefits of each mode (Becker & Bish, 2017).

Whilst there has been a move to embrace informal learning and organisations are moving to more just-in-time development, the evidence shows that participants still saw value in having access to such explicit knowledge presented in more traditional forms. From a learning design perspective, formal learning can improve a learner’s ability to learn from informal methods and assists with integration of these learnings with those obtained through more formal means, however, managers as learners perceive formal learning to be of benefit when coupled with informal modes of learning (Becker & Bish, 2017).

This is substantiated by a global study that suggests an upward trend in organizations using real-life, on-the-job situations in the Leadership Development process, such as coaching, leader-to-leader development, on-the job/inrole learning and mentoring. This means the classic course approach, with activities based on teaching specific knowledge, can be expected to be downgraded in favor of development processes involving leaders directly and supported by internal or external consultants and facilitators—in other words, favoring development processes rather than teaching processes (Research Report by EFMD, NOCA, 2016).

Using informal learning cannot simply be left to chance and at an organisational level – it requires support and infrastructure, coupled with processes that facilitate the opportunities for this learning to take place. Informal learning should not be seen as a lesser form of learning; it provides an opportunity for development of management skills to complement the development gained from more formal modes. Informal learning is by its very nature tailored to the individual. It is accessed at a point in an individual’s development that is timely and the learnings are able to be immediately applied (Becker & Bish, 2017).

One-size-doesn’t-fit-all in Leadership Development

Each individual is different and is at a different growth trajectory. Individuals have varying views of their leaders and their effectiveness, their organizations, and the external environment. We also postulated in the above sections about how each individual learns differently. So, one-size fits-all approach cannot prove the most useful when it comes to leadership development programs (Halt et al, 2018).

To add to that, evaluation of leadership development programs is in itself inherently difficult because the programs produce intangible results, such as increased leadership capacity, which is harder to assess and changes of performance, behaviour and attitude in leadership development may only be revealed over some years and not immediately (Black, 2009).

Researchers thus have been pushing for a transformation in the way development methodologies are evaluated and will take the conversation beyond “what works” to “why it works”. A reform in the way one perceives Leadership Development will also be an opportunity to break away from a generic to a more generative form of knowledge that facilitates the development of new interventions built on the same principles, keeping the individuality of each person in mind, but taking new forms. For learning to be most efficient, researchers say that applying multiple learning formats, multiple settings, as well as experiential and action learning is the way forward. This also emphasises the need for triangulating data and using multiple methods for program evaluation (Mccauley, 2008; Holten et al, 2015).

To improve the efficiency of leadership development programs, it is important then to ask the right questions. Instead of asking “Do leader development programs work?” or “Who gains the most from executive coaching?” a narrower focus that ask questions like “Do feedback programs work?” or “Who gains the most from psychodynamic approaches to coaching?” will be more useful. In addition, researchers should look for opportunities to compare different approaches within the same method. More research is needed that looks at the combination of methods and asking questions like – how might methods be combined for increased impact? (Mccauley, 2008).

Obstacles in organising leadership development programs

We have argued enough that organizations must continually evaluate the impacts of their training programs in order to successfully implement the transformational changes that are necessary to succeed in a competitive, global marketplace. Leadership is something that all organizations care about. But what most interests them is not which leadership theory or model is ‘right’ (which may never be settled definitively), but how to develop leaders and leadership as effectively and efficiently as possible (Halt et al, 2018).

There is a great deal of knowledge about how leadership programs affect individuals in terms of skills, capacities, and knowledge. However, little is known about the mastery of leadership over time and the process of developing as a leader. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (2001) study reveals that directors of leadership programs are often frustrated by (a) the lack of resources for collecting program effect data, (b) minimal knowledge in conducting effect evaluation, and (c) the multiple demands on their time, all of which make program evaluation a low priority (Black, 2009).

The same feeling was resonated by HR professionals in the Research Report by EFMD, NOCA (2016) when listing down the obstacles in leadership development programs –

  • Resources, such as funding and time
  • Top management support, priority and mindset
  • Commitment in the organization/culture
  • Lack of follow-through on Leadership Development activities
  • Leadership Development activities being too ad-hoc (i.e., lack of strategy and plan)
  • Lack of administrative and learning systems
  • Too much focus on business to allow for Leadership Development

This research study demonstrates that important enablers such as support from the executive-level managers, a strong and committed Leadership Development function and business-/strategy-driven activities are much more relevant in relation to achieving higher effectiveness in Leadership Development than overcoming obstacles (e.g., financial resources). The higher the effectiveness of Leadership Development activities in terms of organizational and individual performance, the more investments in Leadership Development are justified and, thus, more likely to be made available (Research Report by EFMD, NOCA, 2016).

How to improve the effectiveness of Leadership Development?

It is also often seen that the transfer of learning from the classroom to the workplace setting is weak. This emphasised the need for a new leadership teaching and learning model, which provides managers with leadership skills appropriate for the changing demands and conditions of modern work life (Holten et al, 2015).

In times of continuous organizational change, managers need skills to maintain a productive and motivating work environment. Such skills are not restricted to theoretical knowledge about leadership. On the contrary, true leadership is not about theoretical knowledge – it is a “performance sport”. Effective leadership teaching and learning programmes therefore have to take both cognitive and behavioural elements into account (Holten et al, 2015). There also is a need to continuously adapt to the changes happening around. Exploring newer and innovative ways for leadership training, especially in the post-COVID world that we live in is also important. Internet technology is impacting all methods of leader development, from the online delivery of program content to e-coaching, e-mentoring, and virtual networks. Using technology to make leader development available to a geographically dispersed population of leaders (without the need to travel) is attractive to organizations. As organizations experiment with ways to make use of internet technology for leader development, this is an important opportunity to study the impact and efficacy of new technology tools (Mccauley, 2008).

HR professionals interviewed for the Research Report by EFMD, NOCA in 2016 indicated that they expected coaching (70%), leader-to-leader development (68%), on-the-job/in-role learning (60%), mentoring (60%) and social media (58%) to become more important LD methods in the next two to three years. In contrast, HR professionals indicated they foresaw the following LD methods becoming less important over the next few years :

  1. Outdoor events (e.g., offsite) (30%)
  2. Lecturing (26%)
  3. Own video production (26%)
  4. Experiential exercises (21%)
  5. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) (21%)

These findings correspond with the necessity to improve engagement of participants and stakeholders in Leadership Development initiatives (Research Report by EFMD, NOCA, 2016).

Low engagement and high turnover are extremely costly for organizations, especially if the people jumping ship are high potentials in whom much has already been invested. How can companies prevent this massive waste of talent and create more effective development programs?

  1. By determining the most important competencies for leadership roles at their organizations. The study by Harvard Business Review (Fernández-Aráoz et al, 2017) identified seven competencies that they believe are crucial for most executive positions at large companies: results orientation, strategic orientation, collaboration and influence, team leadership, developing organizational capabilities, change leadership, and market understanding. In addition, many leading companies are finding that an eighth—inclusiveness—is essential to executive performance.
  2. By rigorously assessing the potential of aspiring managers: checking their motivational fit and carefully rating them on the four key hallmarks—curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination.
  3. By creating a growth map showing how a person’s strengths in each of the hallmarks aligns with the competencies required in various roles.
  4. By giving high potentials the right development opportunities—including job rotations and promotions they might not seem completely qualified for but that fit their growth maps—as well as targeted coaching and support.

When HR professionals were asked to select three factors that contribute to the effectiveness of Leadership Development training/programs at their organisation, more than half (57%) selected engagement of participants and their stakeholders before, during and after Leadership Development program; over two-fifths selected a focus on the design of Leadership Development activities/programs (46%) and ensuring the initiatives support the execution of the corporate strategy (45%) (Research Report by EFMD, NOCA, 2016).

Based on the results of the Research Report by EFMD, NOCA (2016), the participants recognised the following as some factors that could help the organisation in achieving the desired effects on performance from Leadership Development programs –

  • Support of the corporate strategy
  • Dedicated staff for Leadership Development
  • Selection of right participants for the Leadership Development programs
  • A push for increased initiatives like seminars and sessions supported by systems and processes for Leadership development
  • Selection and collaboration with external Leadership Development program suppliers and experts
  • Stronger executive-level commitments
  • Newer technologies
  • Cost-effectiveness of training

References –

  1. Becker, K., & Bish, A. (2017). Management development experiences and expectations: Informal vs formal learning. Education + Training, 59(6), 565-578. doi:https:// doi.org/10.1108/ET-08-2016-0134
  2. Black, A. M. (2009). Measuring the Outcomes of Leadership Development Programs. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 16(2), 184-196.
  3. Fernández-Aráoz, C., Roscoe, A., & Aramaki, K. (2017). Turning Potential into Success: The Missing Link in Leadership Development (Rep.). Harvard Business Review.
  4. Halt, S., Hall, A., & Gilley, A. (2018). Essential Components of Leadership Development Programs. Journal of Managerial Issues, XXX(2).
  5. Hasson, H., Thiele Schwarz, U., Holmstrom, S., Karanika-Murray, M., & Tafvelin, S. (2016). Improving organizational learning through leadership training. Journal of Workplace Learning, 28(3), 115-129.
  6. Holten, A., Bøllingtoft, A., & Wilms, I. (2015). Leadership in a changing world: Developing managers through a teaching and learning programme. Management Decision, 53(5), 1107-1124.
  7. Leadership Development : The path to greater effectiveness (Rep.). (2016). EFMD, NOCA — The network of corporate academies and the society for human resource management.
  8. Mccauley, C. D. (2008). Leader Development: A Review of Research. Center for Creative Leadership.
  9. Megheirkouni, M. (2016). Leadership development methods and activities: Content, purposes, and implementation. Journal of Management Development, 35(2), 237-260. doi:10.1108/jmd-09-2015-0125

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