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Leadership is something like the secret sauce of modern organizations. Managers who are strong leaders are seen as a key factor for any organization dealing with challenges, such as technological disruption, intensifying competition and regulatory burdens. It is the leadership capacity that makes organizations prepared for an unknown future. And it is the managers who show strong leadership who make the difference – recognizing and acting upon threats or seizing opportunities. No wonder then that almost a quarter of the $50 billon budget that US organizations dedicated to Learning & Development in 2010 went into leadership development.[i]

What leadership development research tells us – three key research streams to incorporate in LD efforts

Traditionally, and ever since leadership entered the agenda of management thinking and business school curricula in the 1970s[ii], training efforts have focused on honing the leadership skills and techniques of the individual leader-to-be. In developing our Leadership Development Kit – a practical framework supplemented by a set of tools based on key academic research – we are going beyond this narrow focus on training the individual to develop leadership. We belief that efforts to nurture leaders need to reflect at least three streams of academic research on leadership development that have yielded key insights over the last few years.


1. Leadership development happens in practice and is most effective when embedded in opportunities for reflection and social learning

Leaders are not made in the classroom
As McCall rightly puts it: “The primary source of learning to lead, to the extent that leadership can be learned, is experience.”[iii] While this has long been understood in principle, organizations still find it challenging to integrate their trainings and formal interventions with lived experiences. One famous approach is Jack Welch’s “popcorn stand”, whereby he gave young leaders with high potential profit and loss responsibility early in their careers. Of course in the case of GE a popcorn stand might have been a multi-million-dollar business. This kind of relatively manageable end-to-end responsibility was seen as both a stretch and – because of that – also as the most effective learning opportunity.

While there’s nothing wrong with this approach, practical experience alone, without opportunity for reflection and social learning, could mean missed chances. As success and failure are often the result of many factors, some of which are out of anyone’s control, ‘raw’ practical experience might lead to wrong conclusions and superstitious learning.

This is why a systematic approach to providing feedback is crucial. If it’s well delivered, feedback from bosses or co-workers can allow a leader-in-training to draw conclusions and identify areas that should be further developed through practical experience. Coaches can further help leaders gain a holistic understanding of the different dimensions of leadership behavior in practice, and focus the attention of aspiring leaders. Trainings are an ideal time to reflect upon practical experiences and learn from one another. But not to forget: leadership training without intense, real experience is of little practical use and implicates the danger of providing only truisms.

2. Leadership development is as much about the organization as it is about developing the capabilities of individual leaders

Leadership “happens” and is developed in the interplay between the individual and the organization
Leader-follower relationships determine if leadership has positive impact. The fact that many organizational leaders in hierarchical organizations are simultaneously followers makes this even more important. For example, a divisional leader may be expected to lead her unit through a transformative change – and at the same time she’s following the CEO of the company in executing the overall strategy. How this manager leads will not be determined exclusively by her followership of the CEO, but rather will be enacted in a broad network of stakeholders, each entangled in leader-follower relationships. You’re not leading alone – you’re leading in complex social settings.

Many leadership development interventions ignore this social dimension and focus too narrowly on the individual level (such as certain individual skills and abilities). Leadership development needs to go beyond this and should intervene both at the individual and the organizational levels, and should link according initiatives throughout the organization. Leadership development efforts include the question of how to foster formal and informal organizational networks in which effective leadership happens. On the level of competencies, conflict management skills are essential to leaders as they facilitate leader-member and team relationships.

3. Allow for and support the development of authentic leadership

Leadership is not only an individual practice
Leadership is also highly personal if practiced in an authentic way. Different personal leadership styles can be equally successful. Just as leadership development interventions have to observe the broader context of the organization (such as market characteristics, differentiating capabilities, or strategic priorities) they also have to allow for authentic ways for an individual to lead – or else risk missing an important point of building leaders in the first place. As per the definition from Avolio and Gardner, authentic leadership development involves the “ongoing processes whereby leaders and followers gain self-awareness and establish open, transparent, trusting and genuine relationships.”[iv] It’s important to note here that the increasing attention paid to authentic leadership is due to an understanding that such leadership could mitigate some of the estranging effects sometimes associated with modern organizations.

Used in practice, leadership development efforts in this vein should allow leaders to hone their skills in accordance with, and reflecting, their personal values, rather than confining them to generic personas or roles that adhere to a set of “best practice” leadership behaviors. This also means that to the extent that organizations train their leaders for certain skills and practices the calls for authentic leadership in adopting these skills and practices should be thought through and designed into the LD program.

We developed the Leadership Development Kit which integrates key insights from academic research, as illustrated above, with proven practical approaches and tools. If you are interested in working with the Kit access a preview by clicking the button below.


[i] O’Leonard, K. (2010). The corporate learning factbook 2009: Benchmarks, trends and analysis of the U.S. Training Market. Bersin & Associates (2).

[ii] Khurana, R. (2010). From higher aims to hired hands: The Social transformation of american business schools and the unfulfilled promise of management as a profession. Princeton University Press.

Zaleznik, A. (1992/1977). Managers and leaders: Are they different? Harvard Business Review, March/April 1992, 70(2), 126–135. First published May/June 1977, 55(3), 67-76.

[iii] McCall, M.W. (2004). Leadership development through experience. Academy of Management Executive, 18, 127–130 (127).

[iv] Avolio, B.J. & Gardner, W. (2005). Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 315–338 (322).