2. Principles for successful leadership development

At its best, leadership development helps people at all levels in an organization address some of the most fundamental questions facing all of us; questions we don‘t often get to address explicitly at work: Who are you? Why are you here? What do you believe in? How have your experiences shaped you? What do you want to contribute? How do you need to change?

Large organizations trying to tackle the issue of legacy – growing a cadre of leaders to take over from the current leadership – will find they only really succeed if the CEO and other formal leaders are actively involved in a hands-on way. When top management commit time and energy to the development of leadership is when it is taken seriously by those involved. (1) Also, best-practice companies tend to use fewer competencies in their leadership development models, feeling that simplicity and focus are strong advantages. (2)

If you are involved in developing leaders you also need to know that your development programme has to be focussed on ‘doing‘ not on ‘knowing‘; it has to be designed expressly to stimulate action that directly benefits the performance of the organization, and to encourage leaders to reflect on and learn from their own and others‘ experiences. Leadership development has to be derived directly from the organization‘s strategy and revolve around real issues. The ideal approach is developing-while-doing.

Finally, get people to manage their leadership development in short, focussed chunks of time - say regular daily or three times a week or even weekly 10-15 minute bursts - that are part of the working week and link to their actual leadership activities, rather than just relying on traditional seminars, retreats, MBA courses, or other events that take people away from work for long periods. (3)


  1. The Leadership Investment. How the World’s Best Organizations Gain Strategic Advantage Through Leadership Development, Robert M. Fulmer and Marshall Goldsmith
  2. Growing your company‘s leaders, Robert Fulmer, Jay Conger
  3. The work of David Rock, Jeffrey Schwartz and others into how the brain processes information, changes to accept or adapt it, and how that is connected with shifts in behaviour, suggests regular short high-attention activities are more effective. See the next section of this paper for more on this.

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