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Developing Organizational Leaders


"I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers." —Ralph Nader  

Broadly stated, leadership is a social process that involves influencing others. The systematic development of good leaders is fundamental to long-term organizational success, yet organizations often overlook it or undertake leadership development in a haphazard fashion.

This article provides an overview of what leadership development is and how to identify and approach leadership development initiatives.

Numerous formal and informal means of developing leadership exist. Leadership development can be quite costly both in terms of monetary outlays and time spent, but recognized leaders and successful organizations understand and measure the impact of such efforts on the bottom line.

What Is Leadership?

A library's worth of business and academic literature has been devoted to understanding and defining "leadership." This section sets forth some common definitions of what leadership is and what it is not and also discusses the qualities, traits, behaviors and competencies associated with leadership.


Leadership has been defined as the process by which an individual determines direction, influences a group, and directs the group toward a specific goal or mission. In a sense, leadership is what leaders do. The following have been observed:

  • Leadership is a behavior, not a position. Leadership is inspiring people to live the vision, mission and values of the organization.
  • Leaders do not just tell people what to do. Great leaders empower people to make decisions that support the goals and vision of the community, ultimately developing smarter solutions. Their job is to inspire and coach. Leaders coach to build a community that is fully participating, both responsibly and accountably. Leaders create buy-in at every level and ensure that all members of their community know that their contributions are important.
  • Leaders are not necessarily born; people can learn leadership behaviors. People who excel in performing their job and who take full responsibility within their communities are acting like leaders. Someone who looks to find a better, smarter or faster way of making things happen is acting like a leader. Yet some people are "born leaders," and they are becoming ever more valuable.
  • Management is not synonymous with leadership. Managers facilitate people, process and product. Good managers implement strategies and find solutions to problems. In contrast, the goal of any leader should be to get as many people living the vision as possible.

Qualities, Traits and Behaviors

The ideal leader is flexible, proactive, analytical, strategic, culturally competent and adept at competitive positioning. Leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman asked more than 300,000 business leaders to rank the top competencies from a list of key leadership skills. They found that the following traits are most important for leadership success:

  • Inspires and motivates others.
  • Displays high integrity and honesty.
  • Solves problems and analyzes issues.
  • Drives for results.
  • Communicates powerfully and prolifically.
  • Builds relationships.
  • Displays technical or professional expertise.
  • Displays a strategic perspective.
  • Develops others.
  • Innovates.


If You Say Yes to This Question, Your Leadership Skills Are Better Than Those of Most Bosses

What Traits Separate a Leader from a Manager?

Viewpoint: Management vs. Leadership

Desired leadership traits may also vary depending on the type of organization—that is, high-tech for-profit versus co-ops and nonprofits.

Building a Leadership Development Strategy

Leaders deal with rapid changes brought about by new technologies, globalization, politics, environmental concerns and war, transforming the basic values, beliefs and attitudes of followers to build organizational capacity for positive change.

SHRM research indicates that both HR professionals and executives view leadership development as a major human capital challenge now and in the foreseeable future. In addition, executives would like to see stronger leadership qualities among the ranks of HR professionals themselves. See SHRM Research Overview: Leadership Development.

Leadership development encompasses formal and informal training and professional development programs designed to assist employees in developing leadership skills. 

The potential rewards of leadership development are great—as are the challenges. HR professionals are often involved in the creation of a leadership development strategy and in its implementation and oversight, including making the business case to senior leaders and measuring return on investment (ROI).

Naturally, the size of an organization influences how the leadership development function is set up and structured. Smaller organizations do not typically have a formal program, whereas larger organizations tend to have a formal strategy, sometimes even a "corporate university."

The involvement of HR professionals in the many aspects of leadership development continues to grow as organizations recognize the need for strategic solutions to address future leadership demands.

Factors to Consider

Many factors should be considered when formulating a leadership development strategy, including:

  • The commitment of the CEO and senior management team. Leadership development can be time-consuming and costly. It cannot happen without senior-level support.
  • Alignment between human capital and the business strategy. Leadership development programs must be designed to support the corporate strategy as well as create both organizational and individual impact to be effective.
  • Financial resources and sustainability. Leadership development requires significant financial and managerial resources over an extended period. 
  • Current gaps in talent development capabilities.
  • The relationship of performance management to leadership development.
  • The relationship of succession planning to leadership development.
  • Other internal environmental factors. For example, at what stage is the organization in its life cycle, and how does each stage affect the type of leadership the organization will need?
  • External environmental factors. Understand how business competitors handle leadership development and organizational learning.
  • The use of meaningful metrics.


The exponential pace of change creates significant challenges to the development of new leaders. These challenges press against the limits of human capabilities both for leadership candidates and the people charged with nurturing new leaders.

Even when the need to develop new leaders is recognized and actively pursued, significant institutional and individual obstacles may impede accomplishing this goal.

Institutional obstacles may include:

  • Limited resources, such as funding and time.
  • Lack of top management support in terms of priority and mindset.
  • Lack of commitment in the organization/culture.
  • Leadership development activities being too ad hoc (i.e., lack of strategy and plan).
  • Lack of administrative and learning systems.
  • The practice of looking for leadership only among employees already at the management level.
  • The practice of affording only management-level employees leadership development opportunities.
  • Failure to effectively assimilate new executives and new hires into existing leadership development programs.
  • Efficiencies of scale of larger organizations versus smaller organizations.
  • Lack of knowledge about how to implement a leadership development program.
  • Lack of long-term commitment to a leadership development program.
  • Lack of or failure to use sophisticated metrics to measure leadership skills or the effectiveness of leadership development programs.
  • The tendency to perceive leadership development as a luxury item subject to quick cost-cutting.

Some of the obstacles to an individual leader's development may include:

  • The individual's ability to retain and apply leadership knowledge, skills and abilities in changing situations.
  • Lack of follow-through on development activities.
  • Generational differences in values, communication and understanding of technology.
  • Too much focus on business to allow time for development.
  • Viewing effective leadership as synonymous with effective management.


Organizations should consider different types of data when designing a leadership development scorecard to measure the effectiveness of leadership development programs and activities. Such data may include:

  • Indicators of the scope and volume of leadership development.
  • Participants' level of satisfaction with leadership development activities and programs.
  • Learning and the acquisition of leadership knowledge and skills.
  • Application of leadership skills to various job situations.
  • Business impact of applying leadership knowledge and new skills.
  • Return on investment comparing monetary benefits with program costs.
  • Intangible benefits related to business measures such as work climate, job attitudes and initiative that cannot be converted into monetary values.

Much of the feedback on the effectiveness of a leadership development program will necessarily be anecdotal. A leader will be able to identify what worked in his or her case but must also recognize that the same approach may not be as effective for others.

See How to Measure the ROI of Leadership Development

Approaches and Elements to Leadership Development

The overarching goal of leadership development is to enhance the capacity for individuals to be effective in leadership roles and processes. For leadership development initiatives to be truly effective, they should align with an organization's corporate strategy and offer development opportunities that are tailored to the individual employee.

See The Chief of Leadership Development: Preparing Today's Leaders for Tomorrow's Challenges.

Identification of potential leaders

Today's dynamic work environments place a premium on making sure there is a robust leadership pipeline for the future. Identifying and selecting the best potential leaders are, therefore, critical strategic objectives for ensuring a sustainable, competitive organization.

Organizations often struggle with identifying potential leaders to select for further development. Do they base their assessments on current performance, resume and pedigree, raw intelligence, drive and determination, ethical attributes, popularity, diversity goals, or 360-degree feedback? One method is the use of a 9-box grid that evaluates an employee's current and potential level of contribution to the organization.

 See What is a 9-box grid?

Employers need to watch out for unconscious bias when selecting employees for leadership development and promotion. Employees with significant potential may fall under the radar because they are much younger than the typical high-potential worker; may have been with the organization for a relatively short time; are in a job that gives them few opportunities to shine; or don't "look the part" because of factors like appearance, personality or communication style. Such hidden bias has been blamed for a largely male presence at the nation's top technology companies. SHRM's Advancing Women Leaders solution is designed to help promote gender equity at every level of leadership.

The most common misidentification of future leaders results from confusing high management performance with high leadership potential. An individual who is smart, driven and accustomed to pushing through obstacles to meet ambitious goals may, for example, lack necessary emotional intelligence for effective leadership. Alternatively, strong leaders can be found at all levels within an organization, not just among managers.

Leadership Diversity

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stereotyping must be avoided in selecting (or deselecting) persons for promotion to leadership roles.

Not only a legal issue, developing diverse leaders also contributes to organizational success. A 2020 McKinsey & Co.  report found that companies with ethnically diverse executive teams were 36 percent more likely to have above-average profits than companies whose teams were the least ethnically diverse. 

Implicit bias is a significant barrier to creating an inclusive environment where a diverse workforce can thrive. When people become more aware of these unconscious assumptions, they are better able to make more-objective decisions and engage in more-inclusive interactions.


The Glass Ceiling: Women and Barriers to Leadership

A Case Study of How to Accelerate Progress in Leadership Diversity

Techniques for Leadership Development

Once an organization is committed to the goal of leadership development, numerous tools and techniques are available to accomplish that goal; however, the process may be handled differently depending on the size and type of the organization (e.g., nonprofit, family business, private company, public company, government entity and specific industry).

The growing use of self-managed and supervisor- or peer-supported development will necessitate a mind shift to greater responsibility for participants and related stakeholders.

Assessment Instruments

A number of popular paper-and-pencil and Internet-based personality assessments are often used in developing candidates for leadership positions and for analyzing leadership styles and their impact on climate and performance.

Employers can identify leadership traits by using current research and personality testing, such as the Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI) or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Assessment centers provide a comprehensive approach to assessment and may include an array of simulation activities to assess performance on a number of criteria.

See SHRM Talent Assessment Center.

Multirater (360-degree) feedback

Multirater feedback—also known as 360-degree feedback—involves measurement of a person's leadership performance and abilities from the perspective of relevant viewpoints, including self, subordinates, supervisors and possibly external stakeholders. This feedback can provide motivation and specific focus to improve leadership skills and performance.

See 360 Degree Feedback: Request for Leadership Behaviors and 360-Degree Feedback Is Powerful Leadership Development Tool.


Executive coaching is often employed in conjunction with assessment instruments. The coaching process can help individuals understand their assessment data and apply it to real-life situations.

The individual coaching for effectiveness (ICE) model has three parts:  

  1. Diagnosis
  2. Coaching
  3. Periodic contact/review to help maintain learning and modified behaviors

See Hire for Coachability and Virtual Coaching Takes Off.


Mentoring is a form of coaching in which a more senior person participates actively in the professional development of a junior person, usually within the same organization. Mentoring may be done informally, as is usually the case, but it can also be formalized.

See Authors Offer Advice on Creating a Mentoring Program and Creating a Mentoring Program: Yodas Not Required.

Leader-to-Leader Development

Pairing senior executives with leaders who are new to their role or an organization allows for mentoring that can result in benefits such as knowledge transfer, confidence building and open collaboration, to name a few.

Experienced leaders can help others understand the inner workings of the leadership team and provide a unique perspective to up and coming leaders in an organization.

Emotional Intelligence Development

Emotional intelligence describes the ability of an individual to be sensitive and understanding to the emotions of others, as well as to manage his or her own emotions and impulses. Ultimately, executive development is about augmenting a person's emotional intelligence quotient (EQ).

Addressing this task in a group environment is particularly effective because much of emotional intelligence unfolds within an interpersonal context. Ninety percent of top performers have high emotional intelligence, according to Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (TalentSmart, 2009).

See Emotional Intelligence Is Key to Outstanding Leadership and She's Smart—But She's Not Emotionally Intelligent.

Work Experiences, Stretch Assignments and Rotational Assignments

One of the best ways to screen for leadership, and to develop leadership abilities, is through the use of stretch assignments. These may entail reassignment to a different geographical location, business unit or functional department. In this way, people are coaxed out of their comfort zones and challenged to employ new strategies to deal with change.

See How to Help Your Team Advance.

Group-Based Leadership Development

Group-based leadership development helps employees attain real-world skills in real time. This method of leadership development can occur through varied methods, including outside experience (such as in community, industry or professional groups), internal programs or external executive education programs. Group-based leadership development requires leaders and potential future leaders to work in unison to:

  • Develop executive skill sets.
  • Provide one another with high-value constructive feedback.
  • Enhance interpersonal communication.
  • Break functional silos.
  • Tackle real-world challenges in real time.

Future Trends

Technology will play a big role in personalized, continuous professional development, and workers with strong behavioral skills will be highly sought after, according to predictions from experts in the learning and development field. With the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning, customized content can be offered based on a learner's specific needs.

The availability of open online courses and other on-demand leadership development solutions increase access to information while reducing costs.

See The Future of Leadership Development.


"The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things." —Ronald Reagan