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Tips for Making Leadership Development an Organizational Competitive Advantage

Elisa M. Torres and Samantha Dubrow, George Mason University, Industrial-Organizational Psychology

Across nearly every industry, work requires leaders to be equipped with the necessary tools to provide innovative solutions to complex problems their organizations face. Many organizations recognize the tremendous impact leadership has on their overall performance, which is evident by the billions of dollars spent by organizations in the US on leader and leadership development each year. Successful leader and leadership development in organizations should begin with an “assessment of readiness” regarding the current state of individual leaders and the organization’s leadership capacity. Then, both formal development and self-development practices should be utilized for optimal results. This article provides three strategic tips for implementing leader and leadership development practices in an organization.

Leader Development Versus Leadership Development

Leader development and leadership development, although closely interrelated, are two separate sets of skills. Leader development focuses on improving individual leaders’ capacities in an organization to make them better managers and direction setters. Leadership development, on the other hand, focuses on an organization’s collective capacity of leadership. Leadership development is largely dependent on a solid foundation of well-developed leaders within an organization. Additionally, leadership development relies on the relationships across leaders, and between leaders and other individuals in the organization, to promote the holistic functioning of organizational leadership. By teaching leaders to work together through leader development practices, organizational leadership capacities can progress simultaneously. In practice, leader development and leadership development promote both individual-level and organizational-level outcomes including leader skill acquisition and collective leadership capacity, both of which have been related to organizational performance outcomes.

Tip #1: Assess Readiness

Assessing development readiness in an organization is a process through which information is gathered from various stakeholders to identify key training demands. Readiness assessments should be geared toward understanding whether leaders are prepared to partake in the developmental process as well as whether the organizational context provides an environment to facilitate such development. Leader development readiness assessments include questions such as: (a) Is the individual motivated to hold a leadership position, (b) does the individual have the motivation to engage in development, and (c) does the individual have a learning goal orientation (i.e., are they motivated by the opportunity acquire new leadership knowledge, skills, and abilities).

Leadership development readiness assessments should also focus on the leadership context. Leadership development readiness questions should ask whether there are, (a) managerial support for leaders to engage in, and practice, newly acquired knowledge and skills; along with (b) reward and recognition mechanisms in place signaling to leaders that the organization values engagement in development of leadership. Managerial support and reward and recognition practices increase the likelihood that new knowledge and skills will “stick” when leaders are removed from the training environment.

Tip #2: Support Formal Development and Self-Development

Leader and leadership development can be formal processes or self-driven by employees. In formal-development programs, there is typically a series of workshops during which trainers present leaders with leadership concepts (e.g., transformational leadership, situational leadership) and guide them through specific activities to practice new skills. Organizations often choose to identify high-potential employees and leaders to participate in leader and leadership developmental programs. With self-development, individual play a more proactive role in identifying which leadership capacities they want to focus on and work independently to choose the associated developmental activities that will help grow those capacities.

Leadership development is best viewed as a bundle of activities encompassing both formalized and self-development practices at work and outside of the workplace. Taking a holistic view of development encourages continuous learning and provides leaders low risk environments to practice and advance new skills. To maximize the benefits of leadership developmental bundles, organization should (a) encourage and help leaders make cross-domain connections, (b) provide support for leaders to engage in creative outlets for self-development, and (c) use recognition mechanisms to reward employees who partake in self-developmental experiences outside of work.

Tip #3: Utilize Organizational Leadership Networks

Two major trends have recently emerged in leadership research and practice: collective leadership and leadership networks. Collective leadership occurs when multiple individuals within an organization share leadership responsibilities simultaneously, divide and conquer, or rotate responsibilities. Oftentimes, collective leadership occurs across a single level, and within a single department or division, of an organization. Thus, holistic leadership development is dependent on training leaders to work together to improve information sharing, communication, and direction across leaders throughout the organization.

Leadership networks represent the connections between leaders within a given organization and can be used to visualize how information, advice, and direction is spread throughout an agency. Leadership networks can be created by asking leaders (a) who they look to for leadership and (b) who looks to them for leadership. Specific leadership networks, such as who looks to whom for advice, setting direction, or “getting things done” can shed light on different patterns of coordination and direction setting throughout an organization, depending on the type of leadership being spread.

Leadership networks can also be used to identify the brokers within an organization. Brokers spread leadership and information between groups of people that may not otherwise be connected. Leadership networks can also be used to identify structural holes where groups of leaders may not be connecting to one another through any stream. Identifying structural holes can help fill in knowledge gaps and potential misalignment of direction setting and information sharing across the organization through leader and leadership development practices.

In sum, both leader and leadership development practices can be an organizational competitive advantage. To maximize return on investment, practitioners should begin with a readiness assessment, provide formal leader and leadership development, encourage self-development and off-the-job development, and focus attention on collective leadership and leadership networks to understand the relationships between leaders and others within the organization. By following these tips, organizations can implement leader and leadership development practices as a competitive advantage to improve performance and the bottom line.

Helpful Resources:

Avolio, B. J., & Hannah, S. T. (2008). Developmental readiness: Accelerating leader development. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 60(4), 331.

Day, D. V., & Dragoni, L. (2015). Leadership development: An outcome-oriented review based on time and levels of analyses. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 2(1), 133-156.

Cullen-Lester, K. L., Maupin, C. K., & Carter, D. R. (2017). Incorporating social networks into leadership development: A conceptual model and evaluation of research and practice. Leadership Quarterly, 28(1), 130-152.

Hammond, M., Clapp-Smith, R., & Palanski, M. (2017). Beyond (just) the workplace: A theory of leader development across multiple domains. Academy of Management Review, 42(3), 481-498.

Carter, D. R., DeChurch, L. A., Braun, M. T., & Contractor, N. S. (2015). Social network approaches to leadership: An integrative conceptual review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(3), 597-622.

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