Good people leaders are an essential component of organisational success; and leadership development has always been 10Eighty’s core area of focus. We looked at some recent CIPD reports into evidence around leadership and development research.

What is leadership?

Defined by Wikipedia as “a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” but there are as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders.

So, given the difficulty of defining leadership, it’s not surprising that assessing and measuring leadership potential, capability and efficacy can be problematic. The data which the CIPD examined did not measure leadership as such, but rather evaluation of the impact (transfer) of leadership development programmes by using Kirkpatrick’s model.

Kirkpatrick’s assessment has four sequential components:

  1. Reaction: what participants think and feel about the training programme
  2. Learning: the resulting increase in knowledge, skills and change attitudes
  3. Behaviour: the resulting change in practice and behaviour
  4. Results: the resulting organisational benefits (performance, service delivery, outcomes)

Does leadership development make a difference?

The evidence reviewed suggests that overall leadership development programmes have, as you would expect, mixed results:

  • Leadership training has a moderate positive effect, but this effect varies across participants and settings;
  • The effectiveness of leadership training has somewhat improved over the past decades;
  • The effects of leadership training remain stable over time;
  • The evidence on the economic return on investment of leadership training is unclear.

It’s interesting to note that in respect of the effects over time, the CIPD find that the effect of leadership training is subject to diminishing returns – that is, leaders who already use good techniques are unlikely to gain as much from additional training as those who do not use these techniques.

What makes leadership development effective?

Given a large variation of effectiveness in development programmes, it is suggested that the effect of leadership training is moderated and/or mediated by several factors, such as delivery and implementation characteristics.

The review of findings suggests that the following characteristics tend to be more effective +

  • Start with a ‘training needs analysis’ – careful training needs analysis (through a survey, interview, focus group, critical incidents) before the start of the programme tends to increase its effectiveness.
  • Focus on general management skills and (soft) interpersonal skills – the skills that seem to transfer best to leader behaviour seem to be general management skills (goal setting, performance appraisal, time management) and, to a lesser extent, interpersonal skills (listening, questioning, negotiating, mentoring). However, it was found that ‘off the shelf’ courses provided by private training providers in the UK often show serious omissions when it comes to teaching these skills.
  • Duration and repetition – studies show that leadership development programmes should be of reasonable length (at least three days) and repeated periodically to be effective. Also, leadership training programmes with spaced distribution are more effective than one-off training. Long and complex courses may not be required to achieve positive change; short (several days), punchy courses with clear objectives may be just as effective.
  • Use multiple learning and evidence-based instruction methods – effective training programmes are characterised using a combination of didactic learning, tutorials and reflective learning and tend to use multiple instruction methods – lectures, group work, and action learning projects.
  • Provide opportunities to practise – include opportunities for practice, linked to real-world situations or trainee-generated scenarios.
  • Create a safe learning climate and provide recognition and support – leadership training should not be treated as a one-time intervention but should be robustly and systematically integrated and communicated in the workplace climate and processes.

Effective leadership development must look at more than a leaders’ performance of their job tasks.

Why it matters

It’s interesting to see how closely the CIPD review of research, mirrors the conclusions drawn by a recent Harvard Business Review article “What Makes Leadership Development Programs Work” by Yemiscigil et al. The most effective programmes build on initial change with reminders and ongoing interventions designed to embed long-term habits and continued engagement.

Well-designed initiatives facilitate personal growth, enhanced sense of self, greater meaning and purpose in personal and professional life, greater happiness, and reduced stress, thereby enabling real transformation and a substantial boost in mental health and wellbeing. This improved engagement and effectiveness empowers leaders to support their teams and organisations well.

It seems to me self-evident that every organisation is unique and so leadership development programmes must be bespoke, tailored to the needs of a business and the environment in which it operates.


Joan O'Connor

Joan, Head of Leadership Practice, is a highly experienced executive coach, facilitator, team coach and consultant and has worked in global commercial environments since the mid-90s. She enables individuals to make a positive difference for themselves through one-to-one coaching, team effectiveness and team coaching work. In her leadership coaching, she helps people work out what being a leader means to them, and how to become the best possible leader. You could describe Joan as a vinyasa flow yoga practitioner, a lover of ballroom and latin dancing, who wants to learn the Argentinian tango, ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ addict (who even watches ‘It Takes Two’), musical theatre fan, frequent concert goer and convert to the Latin American rhythms of Santana after Carlos’ guitar solos sparked a musical epiphany. She adores amethysts and is obsessed with the colour purple (not the book/film) which, you may have noticed, has heavily influenced 10Eighty’s branding…

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