Leadership Development Is Failing Us. Here’s How to Fix It

Executive development programs are big business, but too many fail to yield meaningful results. Here’s how to be a savvy consumer.

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Daniel Hertzberg/theispot.com

Helping managers and high-potential contributors develop better leadership skills can be a critical part of building organizational capabilities — but for many companies, leadership development programs are falling far short. Those responsible for selecting such programs often struggle to show how their spending has produced significant, enduring changes in participants’ individual capacities or collective outcomes, yet operating executives continue to fund these efforts without requiring such accountability.1 The result: a massive leadership development industry in which few distinguish between snake oil and effective healing potions.

Our review of leadership development programs (LDPs) at several dozen business schools around the world illustrates the typical shortcomings.2 Few program directors we surveyed could identify how the design and evaluation of their leadership development offerings consistently meet scientific standards of desired impact. Instead of documenting improvement in participants’ capabilities, for example, the majority (70%) said they settle for positive reactions to the program or evidence of knowledge gained, at least in the short term (63%). None linked their programming to changes in participants’ career trajectories, followers’ attitudes or performance, or team- or organization-level outcomes.

Similarly, our recent interviews with 46 HR executives revealed that their selection of LDPs is seldom guided strongly by evidence of effectiveness. Rather, most acknowledged that they have made such decisions with limited information, often investing significant sums based on things like the “looks” of a program (such as a well-designed website) or the charisma of the faculty. As one executive noted, leadership development decisions seem to resemble the online dating industry, where swiping left or right is based more on appearance than substance.

This problem is not inevitable. From our years of studying leadership development, developing and delivering programs, and working with chief human resources officers and chief learning officers at organizations such as Ericsson, Microsoft, Philips, the Red Cross, and Siemens, we have arrived at a simple premise: Good leadership development requires attention to three core elements — a program’s vision, method, and impact — and the integration between them.

Just a few good questions about a program, and careful parsing of the answers, can clarify how well each of these elements is designed and aligns with the others — and lead to significantly better decisions.



1. P. Vongswasdi, H. Leroy, J. Claeys, et al., “Beyond Developing Leaders: Toward a Multinarrative Understanding of the Value of Leadership Development Programs,” Academy of Management Learning & Education (forthcoming), published online June 12, 2023.

2. H. Leroy, M. Anisman-Razin, B.J. Avolio, et al., “Walking Our Evidence-Based Talk: The Case of Leadership Development in Business Schools,” Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 29, no. 1 (February 2022): 5-32.

3. C.N. Lacerenza, D.L. Reyes, S.L. Marlow, et al., “Leadership Training Design, Delivery, and Implementation: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Applied Psychology 102, no. 12 (December 2017): 1686-1718; H. Aguinis and K. Kraiger, “Benefits of Training and Development for Individuals and Teams, Organizations, and Society,” Annual Review of Psychology 60 (2009): 451-474; and D.S. DeRue and C.G. Myers, “Leadership Development: A Review and Agenda for Future Research,” ch. 37 in “The Oxford Handbook of Leadership and Organizations,” ed. D.V. Day (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2014).

4. R.A. Noe, “Trainees’ Attributes and Attitudes: Neglected Influences on Training Effectiveness,” Academy of Management Review 11, no. 4 (October 1986): 736-749; and C.M. Axtell, S. Maitlis, and S.K. Yearta, “Predicting Immediate and Longer-Term Transfer of Training,” Personnel Review 26, no. 3 (June 1997): 201-213.

5. V. Burke and D. Collins, “Optimising the Effects of Leadership Development Programmes: A Framework for Analysing the Learning and Transfer of Leadership Skills,” Management Decision 43, no. 7/8 (August 2005): 975-987.

6. L. Dragoni, P.E. Tesluk, J.E.A. Russell, et al., “Understanding Managerial Development: Integrating Developmental Assignments, Learning Orientation, and Access to Developmental Opportunities in Predicting Managerial Competencies,” Academy of Management Journal 52, no. 4 (August 2009): 731-743.

7. P.C. Brown, H.L. Roediger III, and M.A. McDaniel, “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2014).

8. Lacerenza et al., “Leadership Training Design, Delivery, and Implementation,” 1686-1718.

9. G.M. Alliger, S.I. Tannenbaum, W. Bennett Jr., et al., “A Meta-Analysis of the Relations Among Training Criteria,” Personnel Psychology 50, no. 2 (June 1997): 341-358; M. Gessler, “The Correlation of Participant Satisfaction, Learning Success, and Learning Transfer: An Empirical Investigation of Correlation Assumptions in Kirkpatrick’s Four-Level Model,” International Journal of Management in Education 3, no. 3-4 (June 2009): 346-358; and W. Arthur Jr., W. Bennett Jr., P.S. Edens, et al., “Effectiveness of Training in Organizations: A Meta-Analysis of Design and Evaluation Features,” Journal of Applied Psychology 88, no. 2 (April 2003): 234-245.

10. S.M. Blakey and J.S. Abramowitz, “The Effects of Safety Behaviors During Exposure Therapy for Anxiety: Critical Analysis From an Inhibitory Learning Perspective,” Clinical Psychology Review 49 (November 2016): 1-15.

11. R.M. Ryan and E.L. Deci, “On Happiness and Human Potentials: A Review of Research on Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being,” Annual Review of Psychology 52 (2001): 141-166.

12. R. Fischer, “From Values to Behavior and From Behavior to Values,” ch. 10 in “Values and Behavior: Taking a Cross Cultural Perspective,” ed. S. Roccas and L. Sagiv (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017).

13. N. Duarte, “Make Your Case for Communication Upskilling,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Aug. 3, 2023, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.


The European Social Fund provided partial support for the research reported in this article.

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Comment (1)
Graham Ward
Great article. The market for programs at business schools and beyond is both saturated and at the same time thin. The excuse that development is not quantifiable does not wash. It's time this multi billion dollar industry was concentrated into what works: the world is crying out for it. Prof. Graham Ward