5 Developing Leadership Skills

Methods of Leadership Development

Leader development takes place through multiple mechanisms: formal instruction, developmental job assignments, 360-degree feedback, executive coaching, and self-directed learning. These approaches may occur independently but are more effective in combination.

Formal Training

Organizations often offer formal training programs to their leaders. Traditional styles provide leaders with required knowledge and skills in a particular area using coursework, practice, “overlearning” with rehearsals, and feedback (Kozlowski, 1998). This traditional lecture-based classroom training is useful; however, its limitations include the question of a leader’s ability to transfer the information from a training environment to a work setting.

Developmental Job Assignment

Following formal training, organizations can assign leaders to developmental jobs that target the newly acquired skills. A job that is developmental is one in which leaders learn, undergo personal change, and gain leadership skills resulting from the roles, responsibilities, and tasks involved in that job. Developmental job assignments are one of the most effective forms of leader development. A “stretch” or developmental assignment challenges leaders’ new skills and pushes them out of their comfort zone to operate in a more complex environment, one that involves new elements, problems, and dilemmas to resolve.

360-Degree Feedback

The 360-degree feedback approach is a necessary component of leader development that allows leaders to maximize learning opportunities from their current assignment. It systematically provides leaders with perceptions of their performance from a full circle of viewpoints, including subordinates, peers, superiors, and the leader’s own self-assessment. With information coming from so many different sources, the messages may be contradictory and difficult to interpret. However, when several different sources concur on a similar perspective, whether a strength or weakness, the clarity of the message increases. For this mechanism to be effective, the leader must accept feedback and be open and willing to make changes. Coaching is an effective way to facilitate 360-degree feedback and help effect change using open discussion.


Leadership coaching focuses on enhancing the leader’s effectiveness, along with the effectiveness of the team and organization. It involves an intense, one-on-one relationship aimed at imparting important lessons through assessment, challenge, and support. Although the goal of coaching is sometimes to correct a fault, it is used more and more to help already successful leaders move to the next level of increased responsibilities and new and complex challenges. Coaching aims to move leaders toward measurable goals that contribute to individual and organizational growth.

Self-directed Learning

Using self-directed learning, individual leaders teach themselves new skills by selecting areas for development, choosing learning avenues, and identifying resources. This type of development is a self-paced process that aims not only to acquire new skills but also to gain a broader perspective on leadership responsibilities and what it takes to succeed as a leader.

Leadership Development Models

McCauley, Van Veslor, and Ruderman (2010) described a two-part model for developing leaders. The first part identifies three elements that combine to make developmental experiences stronger: assessment, challenge, and support. Assessment lets leaders know where they stand in areas of strengths, current performance level, and developmental needs. Challenging experiences are ones that stretch leaders’ ability to work outside of their comfort zone, develop new skills and abilities, and provide important opportunities to learn. Support—which comes in the form of bosses, co-workers, friends, family, coaches, and mentors—enables leaders to handle the struggle of developing.

The second part of the leader-development model illustrates that the development process involves a variety of developmental experiences and the ability to learn from them. These experiences and the ability to learn also have an impact on each other: leaders with a high ability to learn from experience will seek out developmental experiences, and through these experiences leaders increase their ability to learn.

The leader-development process is rooted in a particular leadership context, which includes elements such as age, culture, economic conditions, population gender, organizational purpose and mission, and business strategy. This environment molds the leader development process. Along with assessment, challenge and support, leadership contexts are important aspects of the leader-development model.

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