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What Makes Leadership Development Programs Succeed?

What Makes Leadership Development Programs Succeed?

Leadership development is a massive industry. But do these programs actually pay off for the leaders who participate in them? Through a series of experiments, surveys, and analyses of data from more than a thousand participants in six different leadership development programs around the world, the authors determined that these initiatives can substantially boost personal growth and wellbeing — but only when implemented correctly. To address this gap, the authors share seven research-backed strategies to help program designers address common pitfalls and build experiences that actually drive real, positive, lasting impact.

Every year, global organizations spend more than $60 billion on leadership development programs. But the returns these investments yield for leaders and their teams are not always clear. What does leadership development actually accomplish? Does it change leaders in a meaningful way? And if so, how long do these changes last?

As educators who have spent years creating leadership development experiences, we’ve seen firsthand that program evaluators are often quick to offer enthusiastic reports of participants’ learning and growth — and that these evaluations can be enough for employers to decide that their program works. But our ongoing and published research suggests that such optimistic reviews don’t always capture the whole story.

Through a series of experiments, longitudinal surveys, and analyses of quantitative and qualitative data from more than a thousand participants in six different leadership development programs in companies and schools around the world, we found that under the right circumstances, leadership development can have a substantial positive impact on employees and employers. Specifically, these initiatives can drive personal growth, a clearer sense of self, greater meaning and purpose in life and at work, greater happiness, and reduced stress, ultimately enabling real transformation and a substantial boost in mental health and wellbeing. This in turn can foster improved engagement and effectiveness, empowering leaders to better support their teams and organizations.

But in many cases, organizations fail to realize the true potential of leadership development. In fact, one estimate found that just 10% of spending on corporate leadership training delivers concrete results. To address this gap, we’ve identified seven research-backed strategies that can help program designers address common pitfalls and build experiences that actually drive positive change:

1. Focus on whole-person growth.

Leadership development is less about learning specific, tactical skills than it is about cultivating the broad capabilities, such as self-awareness or resilience, that are necessary to adapt to dynamic, evolving challenges. These attitudes and behaviors are inherently widely applicable, and so effective leadership development must work with and transform not just leaders’ performance of concrete job tasks, but their whole selves.

As one executive in our studies explained, “This program is transforming not just how I lead but how I live.” Another remarked, “This program opened up not only the possibilities in my career, but the possibilities within myself.” Yet another described how a development program helped them in every aspect of their life: “I identified opportunities to improve the way I engage with others on teams. I also recognized opportunities to engage more effectively with my teenage kids.” A whole-person approach to growth both improves organizational outcomes and adds greater value to the leader, personally and professionally.

2. Provide opportunities for self-reflection and meaning-making.

One of the main ways in which leadership development creates value for employees is by offering them the chance to take a pause from the daily grind and reorient their self, work, and life. This can in turn lead to a renewed sense of purpose at work and beyond. As one participant reflected, “The program helped me slow down and intentionally consider my purpose in life. It was the first time in years I allowed myself to consider why I am here, why I do what I do, what my purpose is, how I show up in the world, and how I want to show up moving forward.” This also boosted their effectiveness at work: “I am clearer and more focused about what I want to accomplish at work,” the participant continued. “I am enjoying my work more than I did before.”

To make the most of this rare opportunity, it is crucial to give employees plenty of time and space for structured self-reflection, and to explicitly encourage them to reflect on their purpose. Dov Seidman, an entrepreneur and founder of The HOW Institute for Society (a non-profit whose mission is to build and nurture a culture of moral leadership), argues compellingly for the value of such an approach, observing that “When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings they start — start to reflect, rethink assumptions, and reimagine a better path.”

Encouraging leaders to press the pause button every now and then gives them the breathing room necessary to find meaning in personal and professional milestones, which can spark life-changing insights and perspective shifts.

3. Offer targeted programs to support leaders with acute or chronic stress.

In our research, we found that effective leadership development gave participants a new sense of focus and direction, which often improved happiness and reduced stress. As one leader described, “Remembering to focus on my purpose in life and actively identifying how the tasks I perform relate to my purpose has given me more peace with the work I am (and am not) performing. As a result, it has positively contributed my long-lasting happiness.” Another explained how they felt energized after completing a leadership development program: “I figured out that I was burned out. [The program] gave me energy … it recharged my battery.”

Importantly, reductions in stress were larger for programs delivered during the pandemic (a particularly stressful time for many leaders), and for participants who had higher baseline stress levels. We also found that leaders with higher levels of emotional variability or neuroticism — traits that tend to be associated with chronic stress — experienced greater reductions in stress after completing a development program. This suggests that employers should prioritize leadership development when stress due to collective or personal challenges is particularly high, as these initiatives can help destress employees and bolster their psychological resources.

4. Don’t underestimate short, intensive programs.

One of the most interesting findings in our studies was that shorter programs often yielded surprisingly large improvements. In some cases, we found that a two- or four-day intensive had the same or even greater impact than an equivalent four-week program, and some even led to increases in wellbeing on par with those observed after therapeutic mental health interventions.

As such, program developers and participants alike may stand to benefit from actively exploring ways to condense these initiatives, since a shorter, more-intensive program may actually achieve better results while taking up less time and financial resources.

5. Acknowledge and address psychological barriers to growth.

Not everyone is equally open to self-improvement. In particular, our research found that people who had the most clarity in their sense of self and who were highly conscientious exhibited the least positive change in response to development programs. (Interestingly, these individuals also tended to have higher incomes, suggesting that these traits may be tied to status and salary.) Of course, a strong sense of self isn’t a bad thing. Our results may simply reflect that these individuals are already stronger leaders, and thus have less need for further development. However, it is also possible that seeing themselves too positively may prevent leaders from being vulnerable and thus make them less willing to develop further.

Given these limitations, organizations must manage expectations about different programs’ specific learning outcomes, and help participants choose programs that fit their personal learning goals. It’s also often worthwhile to spend time cultivating the mindset necessary for learning and development before launching into a new development program, for example by fostering vulnerability and comfort with ambiguity. Ultimately, our research shows that different participants will have different levels of readiness for growth, and some may need more support than others in order to benefit from these programs.

6. Ensure that short-term growth leads to sustained, long-term impact.

A large body of psychological research has shown that when a change in wellbeing is initiated by a one-time event, the boost often fades away over time. In general, people adapt to their new realities, and so short-term improvements don’t necessarily lead to long-term transformation. This phenomenon was on display in our own research as well, as improvements in leaders’ wellbeing tended to disappear in the months after the completion of a development program.

In light of this, organizations would be wise to distinguish between short-term success and true, sustained impact — and ensure that their development efforts avoid prioritizing the former at the expense of the latter. While it’s often easier to measure immediate results, the most effective programs build on these initial changes with reminders and other ongoing interventions designed to establish long-term habits and continued engagement.

7. Embrace online learning.

Finally, as remote work increasingly becomes the norm, many organizations have begun exploring online leadership development options. These programs are generally lower-cost and more efficient, and they make it easier for educators to reach a larger audience. At the same time, some leaders remain understandably uncertain about whether online programs can be as effective as in-person ones.

Despite these concerns, our studies offer cause for cautious optimism: We found no significant differences between online and in-person programs as far as their impact on personal growth and wellbeing. To be sure, there may be other differences between in-person and online programs, beyond the scope of our study — but our initial results suggest that in many situations, development can happen just as effectively online as it can in person.


When justifying massive investments into leadership development, many companies tend to focus almost exclusively on performance outcomes or incomplete, subjective evaluations. But our research shows that these narrow, easily-quantified improvements and subjective ratings are just part of the equation. The best leadership development programs lead to deep personal growth and boost the happiness, meaning, and vitality people experience at work and in life. Especially as employers struggle to maintain employee engagement in the face of countless global and local challenges, fostering wellbeing is both an end in and of itself and a critical strategy to drive performance and retention.

Of course, leadership development programs are no panacea. Without effective implementation, these programs often fail to pay off. But when done right, they can help both today’s leaders and the leaders of the future to grow, engage, and flourish.

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