Leaders don’t spontaneously emerge, fully formed, from your pool of employees.

Leaders must learn new skills and apply them just like everyone else. 

Certainly, some people show more promise as leaders – regardless of their official job title – but leadership development is a long-term process. Fortunately, most corporate leaders realize this and consider leadership development to be a top priority.

Leadership development is a broad term. For the aspiring or first-time leader, it means something different than what it means for the seasoned senior executive. Generally speaking, leadership development at lower levels of leadership is more tactical and “nuts and bolts.” Leadership at senior levels tends to be more strategic and geared toward the development and sustenance of corporate culture.

All leadership development programs need four essential elements: participants, instructors, high-quality content, and executive buy-in. If any of these elements is missing, the program cannot accomplish its goals.

The most effective programs create a virtuous cycle of measurement, learning, and application of skills.

The most effective development programs involve measurement, learning, and applying new skills.

Indeed, many great programs begin with assessments of participants to determine their strengths and shortcomings. That way, less time is wasted working on skills that are already strong, and more time can be spent addressing skills gaps. Once participants learn a skill, they should take the time to apply it (in different contexts, if possible). It’s only by applying skills and actually practicing them that people fully assimilate skills and learn to call on them when they’re needed. Then the measure-learn-apply cycle can begin again.

How Leadership Development Programs Benefit Businesses

Leadership development programs shouldn’t just be “feel-good” or “check off the boxes” programs. When done with forethought and genuine enthusiasm, they benefit businesses in multiple ways:

  • They boost the organization’s financial performance
  • They make it easier to attract and retain talent
  • They improve the organizational culture
  • They help the organization develop agility

Sixty-five percent of businesses with established leadership development programs demonstrate improved business results and a healthier bottom line. One study found that businesses that focus on the development of personnel report significantly higher stock market returns compared to businesses that neglect leadership development.

Businesses that invest in leadership development programs see better results on their bottom line.

As for attracting and retaining talent, companies typically find it more effective to develop internal candidates rather than bringing new people in from the outside. This encourages top performers to stay, and makes the company a better place to work, making it easier to attract candidates when they must be sourced externally.

Outstanding leadership development strengthens culture by keeping focus on the organizational vision. This helps in the creation of processes that work toward both short- and long-term objectives. Finally, strong leadership development helps equip businesses to respond to market changes. It’s harder for companies without strong leadership at all levels to respond to economic turbulence.

Leadership Development and the First-Level Leader

“First-level” leaders are those who are transitioning from being an individual contributor to being a leader. This may mean becoming a team leader, or managing a project, for example. At this level, emerging leaders need to acquire tactical skills to succeed in leadership. Skills necessary for first-level leaders include:

  • Effective communication
  • Motivating team members
  • Defining goals and tasks
  • Delegating
  • Listening to and offering feedback
  • Conflict resolution
  • Empowering others to solve problems

In other words, first-level leaders are moving from getting the job done themselves to doing the job by facilitating other people’s contributions.

First-time leaders may manage a project or a small group to start out.

First-level leaders are transitioning from using their skills or technical expertise directly to using both these skills and leadership skills to elicit great results from others. The type of leadership development they need is more tactical and hands-on than leadership at higher echelons.

Leadership Development and the Mid-Level Leader

At higher leadership levels, emerging mid-level leaders build upon their skills at eliciting great performance to helping those performers develop their skills in ways that are aligned with organizational goals. In other words, they’re not just ensuring their team meets requirements, but are helping team members grow and develop so that new leaders can emerge.

Leadership development programs for mid-level leaders will include different elements than those for first-level or senior-level leaders. Mid-level leaders are at the point of moving away from strictly tactical leadership skills, toward leadership skills that are more strategic in nature. They may, for example, be moving from project leadership to departmental leadership, where different skill sets are necessary.

Leadership growth skills for mid-level leaders include things like:

  • Goal setting for teams rather than individuals
  • Cross-functional collaboration skills
  • Negotiation skills
  • Higher-level delegation skills on the team, rather than individual level

As mid-level leaders, people develop a clearer sense of purpose within the overall organization, and they usually develop a leadership philosophy that works for them and that is in alignment with their core beliefs and values. Fewer of their actions are triggered by external sources (like supervisors), and more of their actions are triggered by internal decisions.

Leadership Development and the Senior-Level Leader

Senior-level leaders must operate more strategically and are often responsible for strengthening corporate culture.

At the senior or executive level of leadership, the focus shifts further from leading individuals and teams, toward leading the development and maintenance of the organizational culture. Executive-level leaders lead other leaders, in other words. Senior leaders may sometimes have to use tactical leadership skills like delegation or conflict resolution, but they must increasingly rely on strategic skills, such as:

  • Organizational strategy development
  • Communication of the organizational vision
  • Creating a corporate culture that supports organizational vision
  • Ensuring conditions are right for others’ growth and development
  • Shaping organizational culture to support outstanding performance

It’s easy to see that the leadership development program that is right for first-time leaders would probably not serve the needs of seasoned executives and vice versa. Even in companies with relatively flat organizational structures, leaders will have different levels of experience. Therefore, leadership development programs must be designed with the participants’ specific skill levels and needs in mind.

The following table summarizes the basics of what is needed in leadership development at different leadership levels.

Leadership Level Skills vs. Influence Tactics vs. Strategy
First-Level Leader Skills are dominant Tactics most important
Mid-Level Leader Skills-influence mix Tactics-strategy mix
Senior-Level Leader Influence is dominant Strategy most important

Individual Programs vs. Group Programs

Group leadership development programs tend to be more affordable, but they may not be easy to customize to organizational needs.

Should leadership development programs be implemented on an individual or a group level? The right answer will depend on several factors including the size of the leadership “class,” specific leadership needs, and the budget for training.

Individual training would be ideal, but few organizations can carve out the individual time or the money to support this type of training – particularly if multiple individuals qualify for leadership development. Group training makes sense for many businesses, but programs must be chosen carefully to ensure they address noted skills gaps at the right learning level for participants.

The following table summarizes the differences between individual and group leadership development programs, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Individual Leadership Development Programs Group Leadership Development Programs
Participants get the undivided attention Companies can orient a group of leaders toward common goals
Addressing specific skills is easier Generally easier to plan
Programs can be “custom-tailored” More cost-effective
Extensive planning is required if multiple individuals need training Easier to develop a coherent leadership strategy across the   organization
Tends to be expensive May not adequately address some participants’ skills gaps
Potential exists for lack of cultural continuity if training is too   highly individualized May not be efficient in terms of time invested by the company

Key Leadership Skills All Leadership Development Programs Should Support

There are some leadership skills that are so fundamental that they can make or break leadership effectiveness at any level. Leadership development programs should offer lessons that support and strengthen self-awareness, lifelong learning, influence, and communication.

Fundamental leadership skills should be strengthened by leadership development programs.

Self-awareness, as I have said many times, is one of the most – perhaps the most – important leadership quality, because it underlies every action of a true leader. Self-awareness begins with self-knowledge and is closely related to emotional intelligence. It allows us to evaluate situations, “read” the room, understand our emotions, and behave proactively rather than reactively.

Lifelong learning is necessary for everyone and leaders in particular. We live in a time of rapid change, and the markets and technologies we count on today can be superseded at any time. The leader who stops learning is a leader nearing the end of their effectiveness.

Influence is similar to authority. It comes primarily from setting a great example. A leader’s influence has the power to shape character, behavior, and attitudes, for good or ill. Every leader must understand their influence on others and the surprising amount of responsibility that goes along with it.

Without communication, it’s impossible to lead. When the only difference between two leaders is communication ability, the one who can communicate well is by definition the better leader. Communication from leaders takes many forms, and leaders who develop their communication skills and strive to continually improve them can count on becoming a better leader.

How Participants Can Get the Most from Leadership Development Programs

Excellent time management helps leadership development program participants prepare and get the most from their program.

Whether you’re a participant in a leadership development program or are responsible for developing such programs, it’s important to know how people can get the most from them. Participants who will gain the most from leadership development programs are those who:

  • Manage their time well. Maintaining a calendar with reminders and time blocked out for course attendance, review, other work, home life, and R&R can help ensure that no area of life is shortchanged.
  • Use learning best practices. People have different learning styles and most know what’s best for them. Having the right tools at hand, focusing during learning sessions, reviewing, and taking breaks can help learning “stick” better.
  • Use available resources. Learners who take advantage of resources like online videos, podcasts, or written materials can shore up areas where they need more information or practice, helping close skills gaps more effectively.
  • Ask for help. Everyone occasionally needs help, and there is absolutely no shame in asking for clarification or asking other questions. Asking questions helps ensure you won’t miss key concepts and keeps you engaged in learning.
  • Prepare. Successful learners attend learning sessions rested and ready to learn.
  • Challenge themselves. When a learner finds a particularly interesting topic or aspect of a lesson, they may use their own time to dig deeper and satisfied their need to learn more.

The Role of Coaching in Leadership Development

Coaching enhances leadership development at every leadership level.

Coaching can take a good leadership development program and turn it into an exemplary one. Coaches work individually with people to develop strengths and overcome weaknesses and to practice skills so that they become natural and fluid. Sure, you could reasonably replicate your grandmother’s recipe for blackberry pie, but you’ll get even better results if she’s there with you, coaching you through every step.

Leadership coaching may or may not be a part of a pre-packaged leadership development program. It’s worth asking about. Programs that provide at least some one-on-one coaching in addition to learning and skills development help participants lockdown skills, improve retention of knowledge and have an easier time putting new skills to work in everyday life.

Many companies invest in individual leadership coaching for their senior-level executives because they have seen the results that outstanding coaching can produce. Unfortunately, one-on-one coaching on an extended basis can be too expensive for many companies to add to their leadership development programs. Regardless, it’s essential that program developers understand the importance of participants practicing new skills and build practice sessions into programs.

Companies invest in leadership coaching for the same reason they invest in leadership development: because it gets measurable results. If coaching isn’t in the budget, particularly for first-time or mid-level leaders, helping these emerging leaders find capable and willing mentors can be valuable in terms of reinforcing learning and putting it all into context.


Leadership development pays off over the short and long term.

Organizations that don’t invest in leadership development are leaving their future to chance. Even if today’s leadership “bench” is young and effective, there’s no way to know how it will be in two or five years. Leadership development programs help companies ensure a deeper bench and help ensure that when leadership positions open up, the right person is ready and willing to step up and take on the challenge.

No single leadership development program is right for every organization. Organizational size and structure, the particular industry, and organizational goals all influence what “leadership” means. But investing in leadership development is an investment with demonstrable ROI. Not only does it strengthen leadership capability, but it also strengthens corporate culture and helps ensure that individual and team goals stay aligned with organizational goals.

The best leadership development begins with the identification of front-line employees who demonstrate leadership within their roles and who show promise for taking on bigger responsibilities. The sooner you identify potential leaders, learn of their willingness, and assist the willing with developing leadership skills, the better prepared you will be for a bright and promising future.


Glossary of Terms

Communication – effectively sharing or exchanging information, whether through speech, writing, video, or some other medium

First-level leader – a leader on the first rung of the leadership ladder. Someone who is transitioning from being a front-line producer to being a leader of individuals.

Influence – the ability to affect others’ character, behavior, development, actions, or attitudes

Leadership coaching – a one-on-one professional relationship in which a coach works with a client to strengthen strengths, address shortcomings and generally fulfill leadership potential

Leadership development program – an educational program designed to help new leaders gain skills and more experienced leaders maintain and improve skills in preparation for taking on greater responsibilities

Lifelong learning – a desire and willingness to continue learning new things, regardless of educational status, job title, age, or general level of experience or accomplishments

Measure-learn-apply – a virtuous educational cycle involving measuring competency, learning a skill, applying and assimilating the skill, and then starting the cycle over at a higher level

Mid-level leader – a leader who is moving from leading individuals or projects to leading teams, departments, or other organizational subsets

Self-awareness – the ability to monitor and manage one’s thoughts, emotions, and attitudes and behave appropriately in a given context

Senior-level leader – a leader at the top levels of leadership. Senior leaders operate more strategically and are often relied upon to strengthen and maintain organizational culture and define the organization’s place in the community and the industry.

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