The CIPD examined the evidence as to why leaders are important, what makes them effective, and how to develop them. Their reports put the focus on the leadership qualities and behaviours of people managers throughout the organisation and on training that develops both leadership and management.

Why are leaders important?

A leader needs to be able to influence others to gain their support to achieve goals. They are an essential component, the lifeblood, of most organisations.

Leaders who are capable and well supported have a positive influence on:

  • employee wellbeing and engagement, through supporting employees
  • HR outcomes, including employee commitment, work engagement, workplace climate, absenteeism and turnover
  • capability and performance, through clear goal setting, communication, implementation of HR practices and resource distribution
  • innovation, including by freeing employees to spend time finding and implementing improvements, innovation and creativity
  • strategy implementation
  • organisational change programmes, enabling employee support for change and building the organisation’s capacity to change

What factors influence the effectiveness of leaders?

Leadership style – transformational leadership contributes to employee engagement; supportive leadership increases employee commitment to the organisation, altruism and conscientiousness; ethical leadership leads to more ethical behaviour among employees.

Skills and experience – leaders are likely to be more effective if they have varied experience of managing people, including those in different job roles and geographical locations. The CIPD note though that the effect of varied people manager experience on team performance is small.

Bandwidth and support – a reasonable number of people to manage clearly depends on the nature of the work and how much close supervision is needed. A supportive organisational climate is necessary for leaders to be able to effectively support their teams. Where leaders feel supported by top management, they are also more likely to connect, inform and engage employees.

How to develop leaders

Development programmes can have a positive impact on a range of important outcomes – these include communication skills, effective leadership behaviour, goal setting, ability to motivate employees, and change management skills. The effect of training on skills and leadership remains stable or even increases over time, even though ‘declarative knowledge’ – information that a person is aware of knowing decays over time.

Given that the quality of leadership is important for managers and leaders at all levels of the organisation, the CIPD suggests that employers do well to target development especially at less capable or less experienced leaders, above those who are already seen as talented; as those who already use good leadership techniques are unlikely to gain as much from additional training as those who do not. In my view, for these individuals, a tailored coaching programme is likely to be more beneficial.

In essence, employers should communicate that good leadership is valuable throughout the organisation and developing it is an ongoing priority, not a one-off intervention. Then leadership principles can be embedded into organisational processes and the organisational climate.

Recommendations for developing people leaders

  • Invest in leadership development for all people managers and leaders throughout the organisation: leadership development should be for the many, not the few.
  • Get most impact from that investment by prioritising development on those skills that will have the greatest impact.
  • Prioritise training for those who do not already possess effective leadership and management techniques.
  • Identify development needs through a robust training needs analysis and ensure training that addresses these needs identified.
  • Choose training of sufficient duration, with multiple teaching and learning methods, including experiential learning.
  • Promote a climate in which good leadership is valued and opportunities to develop it are embedded in day-to-day organisational life.

I believe that leadership development must create self-awareness, provoke curiosity by soliciting feedback, and expose learners to different environments. Organisations need to develop capable leaders in-house and leadership and people professionals must ensure that people leaders have sufficient support and resources to be effective in their roles.

People Leaders must feel safe to develop and put their learning into practice; recognition, feedback and mentorship all play their part in this.

For sustained, long-term impact the most effective programmes build on initial change with reminders and ongoing interventions designed to embed long-term habits and continued engagement.

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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