Leadership Competency Development – what works – what doesn’t

leadership competency development

Leadership Competency Development – Latest research
What works, what doesn’t, and what is uncertain

Organizations around the world spend huge amounts on staff training, with reports indicating that the largest share of this goes to leadership competency development programmes.   Despite this expenditure most CEOs consistently say that lack of leadership competency is a major concern and challenge in their organization.  

Why Is this?

Recently researchers examined data from over 300 robust published studies on employer leadership competency development programmes over the last 65 years 1.    Their aim – to see if it is possible to identify aspects of training that work better than others.

The studies included all kinds of leadership competency development including supervisory and coaching.

Kirkpatrick’s categorisation2 of training effectiveness was used to analyse training outcomes. Kirkpatrick suggested that training outcomes could be evaluated in 4 ways

  • Reaction of the participant – the training evaluation form.
  • The degree of learning achieved.
  • Learning transfer – whether this learning was thereafter applied on the job.   This was analysed in 4 ways – whether there was use of emotional type content, intellectual content,  and skills to the job and whether that improved job performance.
  • Results – whether a positive difference in organizational outcomes was observed.

46% of the studies included data on learning, 57% on learning transfer – but only 23% on results – organizational outcomes such as ROI or subordinate outcomes – improved perceived support.

Contrary to what appears to be the current gap in leadership competency the study found that leadership training did have a positive effect on all 4 categories.   In terms of learning per se,  information acquired was the strongest effect.   There was much less learning of emotional aspects and of skills.   In terms of learning transfer there was significant transfer of actual skills,  but the effect on job performance was much less.

This raises questions;

  • Were the skills in the programmes the right ones?
  • Were they applied in the right context?
  • Were they applied correctly?

For all studies combined there was a greater association of leadership development with positive organisational outcomes than for subordinate outcomes.

So a further questions is;

  • Why do we see this result?      Leadership is about leading people so it would be expected that improved organizational outcomes would be driven by improved subordinate outcomes.
correlation is not causation

Remember that correlation (association) is not the same as causality.   The association between X and Y – Leadership Development and Organizational Outcomes could be due to something else – a Z factor.

Perhaps the Z factor in this case is the success of the organisation. Successful organisations are more likely to allocate resources to leadership development.

Interestingly the label of the course/programme made a difference.  Those marked ‘training’ were associated with better learning transfer.  Whereas those labelled ‘development’ were associated with better organisational outcomes  – perhaps again for the reason above.

The studies do not provide much detail of the course/programme content – but many do have sufficent details of methodology to enable analysis of design factors;

  • Training needs analysis
  • Training method  – information,  skills demonstration,  practice, and vaious combinations
  • Use of feedback
  • Training setting – virtual, in person, on site, off site
  • Instructor type – internal, external, self administered,
  • Voluntary or required attendance
  • Leadership Level
  • Content topics – intrapersonal  (within person), interpersonal, leadership,  business
  • Duration and Spacing – single session or several sessions

Best practice in learning & development

Training Needs Analysis

The analysis shows that Leadership Competency Development programmes that involved a needs analysis step significantly improved both learning and transfer of that learning to the job.   However needs analysis did not improve organisational outcomes.  This is probably because needs analysis is more about individual needs than the needs of the organization.

Training Method

For learning and learning transfer a combination of information, demonstration and practice was most effective.  There were no significant differences between methods for organizational outcomes and also little effect.

Use of feedback

The use or lack of feedback did not make any difference to reported learning or organizational outcomes.  However those programmes that did use feedback were associated with greater learning transfer.

Training settings

On site and face to face training had better learning outcomes overall.   Off site face to face training was associated with greater learning transfer.   Organisational outcomes had a strong positive associaton with on site training.    However the association could again be due to organisations with better outcomes having the resources to run in house programmes.


Internal trainers were prefered by participants and both internal and external trainers were associated with better  learning, learning transfer and organisational outcomes than self administered training.

Voluntary or Mandatory attendance

Whilst mandatory attendance had a greater association with learning and  organisational outcomes, as might be expected learning transfer was much better with voluntary attendance.

Leadership Level

Learning and transfer of learning were reportedly higher for lower level leadership training than for mid level or high level managers.  However for the few studies that reported on leadership levels  there was little difference in organizational outcomes.  The effect of training was small across all levels.

Leadership Competency Development – Content Topics

There was greater learning and much greater learning transfer from business topics (hard skills)  than  soft  skills ( intrapersonal, interpersonal and leadership skills).   However when it comes to organizational outcomes training in intrapersonal topics (for example self awareness, resilience, integrity) were associated with better results than training on interpersonal and leadership skills and there was little effect of training in business skills.

hard skills versus soft skills

Training duration and spacing

Longer and  spaced training duration was associated with greater participant satisfaction and better organizational results, but no significant relationship to learning or learning outcomes.

Perhaps the explanation is that more successful organizations are more willing to spend on leadership competency development as a means to employee satisfaction and engagement.

In summary

There is evidence that leadership competency development initiatives are effective in imparting learning, and that some of that learning does transfer to the workplace.  However this tends to be more in the area of hard skills than soft skills.   Consistent with the concerns of many CEO’s there is little clear evidence that leadership training and development translates into improved job and organizational performance.

Leadership Competency Development – Where to from here?

The first problem is that despite all the research into leadership approaches and behaviors, there is as yet no conclusive evidence as to the leadership competencies and styles that are associated with organisational effectiveness. 

Leadership competency development has tended to focus on particular leadership styles – transactional (clear explanations and contingencies of reward)  and transformational or visionary leadership.  The transformational style is all about inspiration, influence and persuasion.  These are concepts that are difficult to translate into competencies, specific sequences of behaviours that can be learnt.

Two leadership styles are not represented in the leadership development literature,  even though effective leadership is based on context.  They are the  Directive (command and control) style used in high stakes situations

Directive Leadership
Organic Leadership Style

and the Organic leadership style4  where leadership is based on expertise not position. This style is particularly relevant in today’s knowledge intensive industries.

The second problem is that relatively few studies look at the effect of leadership on organizational performance.   In this meta analysis ROI of the training programmes were taken as organizational outcomes.  However this is not a measure of organisational effectiveness.   Commonly accepted measures of organisational effectiveness are organizational financial results and non financial ones such as customer satisfaction and employee engagement.   Both measures need to be used to ensure we are looking at sustainable success.

Is there a solution?

Organisations need to identify the range of contexts in which they operate,  the extent of routine activities, the high stakes situations and decisions,  the level of expertise employed.  Leadership development needs to be tailored accordingly – the ideal repertoire of leadership competency is not one size fits all.

In order to properly evaluate leadership competency development programmes there is a need for studies using baseline and repeated measures of both financial and non financial aspects of organisational effectiveness.  In this way effects of leadership competency development can be properly investigated, rather than taken on faith.

We know that specific leadership competencies can be trained.  If desirable leadership behaviours result in positive outcomes for the trainee they will be adopted.    Unfortunately the work environment and culture in many organizations is not conducive to supporting new learning.

There are a broad range of factors that affect the application of learnt knowledge and skills on the job5.  Firstly the person must be motivated to do so.  Those people with high job satisfaction tend to be more motivated in this regard.

In terms of the training itself – match to training need and perceived relevance to the workplace are key factors.  There must also be the opportunity to immediately use the learnt competencies on the job.

The work environment must provide positive support from peers and supervisors for using the learnt knowledge and skills.   Any negative reactions will be a disincentive,  as will a complete lack of feedback.

Lastly we all respect what is inspected.   More effort will be made to apply new learnings when there is continuing evaluation of its impact on leadership competency and work outcomes.

The Centranum Competency Development Platform provides a means to define the leadership competencies that are needed in your organization, to assess competency level, track capability gaps and development progress.  Learn More

Our New Zealand partners Organizational Development Institute provide leadership development programmes following the methodologies validated in this research.

1. Lacerenza,  Reyes, Marlow, Joseph, & Salas (2017) Leadership Training Design, Delivery, and Implementation: A Meta-Analysis.   Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 102, No. 12, 1686–1718

2. Kirkpatrick, D. (1959). Techniques for evaluating training programs. Journal of the American Society for Training & Development, 13, 3–9.

3.  Feng Jing, F., Avery, G.C.  (2011)  Missing Links In Understanding The Relationship Between Leadership And Organizational Performance. International Journal of Economics and Business Research

4. Avery, G.C. (2004) Understanding Leadership: Paradigms and Cases. London: Sage

5. Sorensen, P. (2017) What research on learning transfer can teach about improving the impact of leadership development initiatives.   Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research  2017, Vol. 69, No. 1, 47–62