Leadership Development Reality

Part 2 – The Reality of Leadership Development

For organizations in the know, professional leadership development in both the public and private sectors has become a very popular endeavor (Edwards et al., 2015). Leadership development is often considered a strategic necessity for organizations that want to thrive in the rapidly changing and competitive business environment (Dalakoura, 2010). However, despite the need for strong leadership in healthy organizational cultures and despite the strategic necessity of leadership development throughout the organization, roughly 61% of organizations offer no leadership training to their people, and 65% of new leaders say that they feel unprepared for their leadership role (Thomson, 2015). These statistics demonstrate another alarming mismatch to the stated need.

Any activity aimed at improving a person’s leadership ability is considered leadership development (Norwich University, 2018). Professional leadership development breaks down leadership into teachable aspects learned through formal and informal interventions (Hernez-Broome & Hughes, 2004). There are numerous techniques available to accomplish leadership development, and the endeavor can be either individualized or organizational (SHRM, n.d.).

From a professional perspective, leadership development often represents an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage because expert programs help create and foster new leaders and help existing leaders weather change (CCL Staff, 2020). Such programs teach essential skills, help navigate organizational issues, provide clarity to difficult situations, promote taking ownership of both job and task, and help workers prepare for opportunities before they arise. The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development states that a good leadership development program will develop one’s ability to lead themselves, increase self-awareness, the ability to balance conflicting demands, the ability to learn, overall leadership values, the ability to lead others, the ability to build relationships and influential workgroups, communication skills, the ability to help develop others, skills for leading an organization, strategic and creative thinking, and the ability to initiate, adapt, and implement change (Velsor et al., 2010).

Internal Versus External Development Programs

A scholarly preference for external or internal resources regarding leadership development was sought during this examination but was not found. However, several considerations from various industry and professional blogs will help demonstrate a difference. These considerations fall into four points: the advantages and disadvantages of internal and external development.

The advantages of internal development and coaching programs include a lower cost of the program, a more robust understanding of organizational norms by both the trainer and the worker, a higher degree of empathy for the employee, the potential to develop organizational mentors, and the potential to strengthen the organizational culture. The disadvantages of internal development and coaching include confidentiality issues, planning, and scheduling conflicts, workers fearful of sensitive information leaking, potential gaps in leadership knowledge, retaliation concerns, and related issues, both parties being subject to various organizational biases, and the potential to solidify an already toxic organizational culture (Anderson, n.d.; Angle, 2018; McCarthy, 2009; Ward, 2018).

The disadvantages of external development and coaching include the costs associated with the training, the trainer being unfamiliar with organizational norms, the potential lack of industry or leadership expertise, the programs being generally shorter-term, and the organization not being prepared for the changes proposed by the trainer. The advantages of external development and coaching programs include: getting a specialized skillset by a leadership-trained and educated professional, innovative processes and programs, fewer distractions, a program and trainer that is unaffected by company politics and biases, overall increased comfort for the employee, better feedback, and a practitioner that is easier to fire if things are not working out (Angle, 2018; Gurchiek, 2016; Matuson, 2017; McCarthy, 2009;).

As demonstrated, both internal and external resources regarding leadership development come with both pros and cons, and there may be other considerations not mentioned in this examination. The preference for either strategy may largely depend on the organization’s position and the worker enrolled in the development program. Interestingly, some of the literature suggests that a combined approach is superior. For example, a study conducted by Heldenbrand and Simms points to a need for organizations to implement a continuous development system and suggests that integrated (internal and external) individualized leadership development is the missing link between employee engagement and value-added customer improvement (2012).

Other studies support the conclusion and say that an integrated approach to leadership development is a reliable and sustainable way for organizations to build their leadership capacity because it takes the best from both worlds (McNally & Lukens, 2006; Weiss & Molinaro, 2006). Studies to dispute these findings were not found. However, such recommendations are troubling when contrasted with organizations that are either unwilling or unable to provide leadership development internally or externally. Match this with the apparent desire for employees to advance and learn and the organizational doubts about such programs’ effectiveness, and a clearer picture of the root begins to emerge. 

The Benefits of Leadership Development

If done correctly, leadership development can significantly benefit the organization and the organization’s bottom line (Chaimongkonrojna, 2011; Hayward, 2011). It would be hard to deny the idea that a trained leader has a better chance of being a better leader. However, literature exists suggesting that leadership development is essential because leaders placed in their position with limited or no leadership training may struggle (Fenech, 2013). The five branches of the U.S. military understand this and dedicate substantial resources to professional leadership development while encouraging their members to participate in other government or civilian strategic thinking and leadership training where possible (Kirchner & Akdere, 2017; U.S. Naval Air Systems Command, 2019).

While much of the emphasis on this topic usually falls on positional leaders, organizations must understand that development programs are not exclusive to those in leadership positions or those needing development in anticipation of advancement. When organizations seek organizational alignment, better retention, and improved employee efficiencies, leadership development programs may benefit the whole organization (Hayward, 2011). Hameed and Waheed argue that there is a direct relationship between employee development and overall organizational performance (2011). Hayward echoes the idea and says that leadership development results in happier and more engaged staff and improved overall productivity (2011). The point is that the more developed the employee becomes, the more satisfied and committed employees become, which equates to better overall performance and engagement (Hameed & Waheed, 2011). As a result, the organization can experience less turnover, more profits, increased market value, and increased customer attraction, satisfaction, and retention (Hayward, 2011).

Effectiveness of Leadership Development

The effectiveness of leadership development deserves some scrutiny. As with any team, team performance and cultural improvement happen via a strong understanding of task and outcome interdependence (Weinberg & Gould, 2019). Therefore, developing programs and fostering a culture where individuals understand how their tasks and actions help or hinder the overall vision is essential. Such a culture would require effective communication from organizational leaders, clearly defined organizational expectations regarding individual roles, and a clear understanding of the issues that hinder performance. Conversely, an organization’s understanding of participants’ needs and expectations is equally important (Gentry et al., 2014). However, this insight presents an interesting set of issues regarding measuring the effectiveness of leadership development when organizations are unaware of the root causing their issues.

Employees who adopt new or different philosophies during development and then are reimmersed back into entrenched, stagnant, and toxic organizational norms may struggle. As a result, such organizations may find any development endeavors to be a costly waste of time. True and lasting change must be rooted in the organization’s culture and will likely fail in an unchanged organization entrenched in old thinking (Kotter, 2012). A stagnant management-oriented organization will likely not foster the modifications gained during individual or group leadership development, and the program will ultimately be seen as a failure (Hanson, 2013). The warning is that organizational hierarchies unprepared to develop and change collectively may inadvertently hinder attempts to develop and change either an individual or the organization.  

Another problem is the apparent disconnect or gap between leadership development practice and research, and this gap could potentially alter perceptions regarding the effectiveness of development efforts. While the gap is a problem, its existence makes sense. For example, in their analysis of collegiate leadership centers, Lunsford and Brown pointed out that not only is it challenging to get organizational leaders to expose vulnerabilities, but cross-sectional studies used in leadership research largely ignore the time dimension of change that could be better assessed in a longitudinal study (2017). For clarity, a snapshot of such development does not represent the development’s full scope, and researchers and organizations are probably not getting a complete picture due to organizational resistance and a lack of the necessary longitudinal insight. Hence, stakeholders may adopt misconceptions regarding the variables and outcomes. The idea echoes other researchers that note the wide range of valuable frameworks and theories to work with but that the evaluation of such attempts has been limited or even flawed (Ardichvili et al., 2016). Logically, if the components of the evaluation are flawed, so too must be the conclusion.

The truth is that professional leadership development efforts can fail. However, such failures are sometimes the result of missing contexts, a misalignment of goals, a lack of ownership on the executive level, ambiguous requirements of the organization, ignoring systemic or holistic organizational needs, and a lack of organizational reinforcement of the development received (Ghose, 2017). Beer, Finnström, and Schrader found that leadership development works but that perceived failures are often the result of poor leadership in the organization via unclear direction, executive loners, a lack of honest communication, poor organizational design, a culture of fear that hinders organizational effectiveness, and inadequate attention to talent issues (2016). The format of the development program is another consideration because individualized programs offer different outcomes than generalized group programs (Heldenbrand & Simms, 2012; McCauley-Smith et al., 2013). Therefore, evaluators must assign blame with care and with a contextually-informed eye.

Studies examining development efforts support the preceding. For example, a longitudinal study examining pre and post-intervention concluded that leadership skills could improve using leadership development programs (Velayudhan et al., 2011). Another longitudinal study of principals taking leadership development determined that if the development program is relevant and unique to the participant (individualized), the development program will likely be seen as providing opportunities for both personal and professional growth (Cardno & Youngs, 2013). A study examining the effectiveness of various leadership development models concluded that customized, individual, and integrated leadership development programs increase leadership capacity (McCauley-Smith et al., 2013). A case study performed by Sumontha Tonvongval explored the impact of transformational leadership development and its positive impact on employee engagement and organizational performance and found an overall positive result (2013). Brad Shuck and Ann Mogan Herd found that leadership development might be significant when meeting employee needs (2012). Other researchers take it a step further to suggest that leadership development is perhaps the most significant differentiator between successful and unsuccessful organizations (Ghose, 2017).

Despite the evidence saying otherwise, there remains a perception in the marketplace that leadership development may not work as intended (Feser et al., 2017). For example, in their study of emerging leadership development models, Ardichvili, Natt Och Dag, and Manderscheid note various articles suggesting that leadership development initiatives ultimately fail (2016). However, a review of the articles demonstrates a failure to acknowledge or differentiate either group-oriented and individualized program outcomes or the level of experience or expertise of the leadership development practitioner. While likely rooted in an ignorance of the importance of difference, those who have had a negative experience and share that message without the necessary contrasts only fuel misconceptions in the marketplace. Conversely, customer experience surveys may suggest that the necessary contrast is limited as those who had a positive or impactful experience are less likely to share that message (Lax, 2012; Mottl, 2011; Temkin, 2017; Thomas, 2018).

Another common reason for negative perceptions of leadership development is the idea that such programs do not deliver quantifiable results or sustained behavioral change (Hickney, 2021). Again, a difference in outcome exists between program structures. However, while it is true that leadership development is not perfect, the premise of such critiques is missing some essential contexts that ultimately hinder a greater understanding of what one should expect.

An examination of measurements is necessary for that greater understanding. Part 3 will discuss evaluations and limitations of professional leadership development. However, the takeaway of this article is that professional leadership development is not magic, but the research suggests that such development can work to great effect when approached correctly. Conversely, such efforts will likely fail when done incorrectly.


The Articles in this Series:


Use of this work is permitted with proper citation.

Acknowledgments & Actions

  • Thank you for examining this research. Be sure to share if you find value in it, and be sure to check out the other parts of this series. 
  • This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.


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