The State of Leadership Development

Ultimate Guide to Leadership Development

Leadership Is Tough

Let’s be clear from the start: Leadership is a tough job. And it’s getting tougher. As companies struggle with retention, higher employee expectations, hybrid and remote workplaces, heavier workloads, and so much more, leaders are bearing the brunt of these challenges.

But in the face of these challenges, many methods for supporting and developing leaders aren’t holding up.

In fact, DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast research, which has examined leadership trends and challenges for two decades, has uncovered an alarming trend. In the most recent forecast, just 23% of leaders rated their leadership development as high quality, a significant drop from previous forecasts. In most industries, this low customer feedback score is cause for great concern.

Here’s what we know about the current state of leadership development:

  • Leaders feel unprepared for the challenges of their roles.
  • Organizations struggle to find and develop a healthy pipeline of leaders.
  • Leaders at all levels feel increasingly overwhelmed, confused, and stressed about their roles.
  • Leaders don’t have enough time to dedicate to development, needing to focus on only the right development they need in the moment.
  • While HR wants to offer more development opportunities, they struggle to find the time and resources to devote to it, both within their own departments and among leaders.

If you’re struggling with these issues at your organization, you’re in good company. When we talk with our clients about the current state of leadership development, they share the same set of common issues. But with our own experience working alongside our clients who are top professionals in the field, we’ve created some foundational principles that can help you make measurable progress toward overcoming these challenges.

icon to the left with the outer edge of a circle filled in 23% of the way, inside the circle is three people icons, one standing in front of the others, and to the right written,

The Pendulum of Leadership Development

Most HR and learning professionals are aware of the shortcomings of leadership development programs. Additionally, most agree about what would make a program successful.

But while well-versed in theory, they often struggle to bring their vision to life. In fact, data reported in the Harvard Business Review suggests that barely 10% of the $200 billion annual outlay for corporate training and development in the U.S. delivers concrete results.  

At DDI, we like to visualize some of these different approaches for leadership development spread across a spectrum, with a pendulum swinging between extremes on either side. On the left, we think of very traditional approaches—in person, classroom-based, highly structured group learning. On the right are more free-flowing approaches—unstructured, self-driven, largely digital microlearning. And of course, several methods fall somewhere in between.

the words, highly structured learning to the left, a picture of a pendulum swinging left to right in the middle, and then, everything is learning written to the right to show the current state of leadership development is a pendulum swinging between these two extremes of learning styles

Working with limited resources, HR and L&D teams feel like they have to pick one approach, often forcing the pendulum to either of the extremes.

For example, pre-pandemic, a lot of companies wanted only traditional, in-person, classroom learning. But the pandemic brought most in-person programs to a grinding halt.

Some reacted by stopping development altogether, losing their program’s momentum. Others swung to the other extreme of the pendulum, abandoning a structured approach in favor of giving leaders access to online learning libraries to peruse on their own.

Of course, neither approach satisfied anyone.

Companies that weathered the pandemic better had the resources to diversify their efforts, leveraging both sides of the pendulum based on organizational and individual learner needs. For example, they might have created custom virtual classroom sessions for targeted, critical groups of people, while also offering online courses to give learners real-time access to content when solving for a leadership challenge.

Finding the Center: A Consistent Leadership Language

As companies swing back and forth on the pendulum, they often struggle to source content that matches the different modalities, approaches, and purposes of different moments. In many cases, they may need to combine materials created in-house with several vendors.

As a result, leaders may receive mixed messages. Leadership development content from various sources will likely have different underlying leadership philosophies, approaches, and solutions. And that could translate into a hodgepodge of leadership models—and taught behaviors.

As companies seek to offer a diverse range of learning options, they need to ensure that they do so with a clear definition of their leadership language and culture. Throughout this guide, we’ll show you how to leverage a wide range of learning modalities and tools, while tying them together with a powerful foundation that defines your leadership culture and meets your critical business goals.

Meeting Leaders in Motion

It can be tough to create a singular leadership language and culture when you feel like the pendulum is swinging out of control, and you have to constantly adapt just to survive. But we need to be prepared for constant change moving forward and meet our leaders in motion.

Throughout this guide, we’ll talk about designing leadership experiences that meet your leaders in critical leadership moments.

These moments can be transformative, like learning a new role or strategizing to achieve a new business priority. We call these macro moments, and they happen when leaders need to master brand-new skills (and fast!) to perform on the job. They also likely need help from others in these moments—whether for coaching, peer feedback, or practice.

The other type of critical leadership moments are micro moments. These challenges occur during a typical workday. They include situations like tough performance conversations, resolving team conflicts, and even informal conversations with direct reports. While these small moments might seem insignificant at the time, they can have a profound impact on their team’s engagement and performance.

At the heart of effective leadership development is a commitment to support leaders in motion, both in the big and small moments of leadership. You’re not making leadership development “something else” leaders have to do. You are making leadership development a way of work.

a pyramid with several business professionals working on the different layers with a ladder to climb in between layers, to the right is written,

Make Development a Way of Work

How can you start making development a way of work? Here are several foundational principles that should underlie your strategy:

  1. Leadership development needs to be a career-long endeavor of constant improvement, not one-time events.
  2. Development must be personalized to leaders’ needs to maximize the effectiveness of the time they invest in their development.
  3. Leadership development must be both proactive to build leaders’ broad skill sets as well as just-in-time to help them face specific challenges.
  4. Development cannot be theory alone. Leaders need to be able to apply their new skills on the job in a way that’s observable to others.
  5. Leadership development must be applicable to leaders’ current needs to earn their focus and practice.

It may seem daunting. But leadership development is fundamental to the success of the entire organization. With a deeply thoughtful approach, you can make serious strides to improve leadership quality in your organization.

Leadership Development for Every Moment

As you read this guide, we ask that you keep the idea of the pendulum in mind. Ask yourself some key questions:

  • How are you helping your leaders make development a way of work? Are you helping them develop and practice essential leadership skills as well as giving them on-demand development to meet their needs in the moment?
  • Are you offering consistency (i.e., models, underlying principles, behavioral examples, etc.) across your development approaches? Do you have a central approach that creates a consistent leadership language and culture across all of your leaders?
  • How are you building the careers and capabilities of rising leaders? Do you have a steady flow of talent through the pipeline?
to the left various business professionals working alone and together on top of a large set of gears and a mobile device, with the words to the right,