The leadership development industry is vast. Yet, do these programmes genuinely benefit the leaders who participate? Through a series of experiments, surveys, and analyses of data from over a thousand participants in six different leadership development programmes around the world, the authors determined that these initiatives can significantly enhance personal growth and well-being, but only if they are implemented properly. To address this deficiency, the authors present seven tactics supported by research to assist programme designers in avoiding typical mistakes and creating experiences that have a genuine, positive, enduring impact.

Global organisations spend about $60 billion annually on leadership development programmes. The benefits on these investments for leaders and their teams, however, are not always transparent. What exactly does leadership development accomplish? Does it affect leaders significantly? If so, how long do these alterations last?

As educators who have spent years designing leadership development experiences, we have observed firsthand that programme evaluators are frequently quick to offer enthusiastic reports of participants’ learning and growth, and that these evaluations are often sufficient for employers to conclude that their programme is effective. Yet, our current and published research indicates that such hopeful assessments do not often tell the entire story.

Through a series of experiments, longitudinal surveys, and analyses of quantitative and qualitative data from over a thousand participants in six different leadership development programmes in companies and schools around the world, we discovered that, under the right conditions, leadership development can have a significant positive impact on employees and employers. Particularly, these activities can foster personal development, a clearer sense of self, a higher sense of meaning and purpose in life and at work, more enjoyment, and lower stress, so facilitating genuine change and a major improvement in mental health and well-being. In turn, this may lead to increased engagement and efficiency, enabling leaders to better assist their teams and organisations.

Nevertheless, companies frequently fail to grasp the full potential of leadership development. According to one estimate, just 10% of corporate leadership training expenditures provide tangible returns. To address this deficiency, we’ve identified seven tactics supported by research that might assist programme designers in avoiding typical errors and creating experiences that truly generate positive change:


Leadership development is less about mastering specific, tactical skills and more about fostering the broad characteristics, such as self-awareness and resiliency, required to adapt to dynamic, evolving challenges. These attitudes and actions are intrinsically relevant to a broad variety of situations; hence, effective leadership development must focus on and modify not just the leaders’ execution of specific job responsibilities, but also their entire selves.

According to one CEO who participated in our research, “This training is reshaping not just my leadership but also my life.” Another participant noted, “This programme not only expanded my job opportunities, but also my own potential.” But another participant noted how a development programme benefited them in all aspects of their lives: “I discovered chances to strengthen my engagement with team members. I also noticed possibilities to interact with my adolescent children more effectively. A holistic approach to development enhances organisational outcomes and increases the leader’s personal and professional worth.


One of the primary ways that leadership development produces value for workers is by providing them with the opportunity to pause the daily grind and reposition themselves, their work, and their lives. In turn, this can result in a revitalised feeling of purpose at work and beyond. As one participant commented, “The programme helped me calm down and contemplate my life’s purpose with intention.” That was the first time in years that I allowed myself to examine why I am here, why I do what I do, my purpose, how I present myself in the world, and how I wish to present myself in the future. This enhanced their performance at work as well: “I am clearer and more focused on my goals at work,” the participant stated. “I appreciate my work more than I did previously.”

To make the most of this uncommon opportunity, it is essential to provide employees with ample time and space for disciplined self-reflection and to urge them expressly to think on their mission. Dov Seidman, an entrepreneur and the founder of The HOW Institute for Society (a non-profit whose aim is to establish and cultivate a culture of moral leadership), argues persuasively for the usefulness of this method, noting, “When you hit the pause button on a machine, it stops. When you push the stop button on humans, they begin to ponder, reconsider their assumptions, and envisage a better way.

Enabling leaders to sometimes push the stop button provides them with the necessary breathing room to discover meaning in personal and professional achievements, which may create life-altering insights and perspective shifts.


According to Harvard Business Review research, successful leadership development provided participants with a new feeling of concentration and direction, which frequently increased happiness and decreased stress. According to one leader, “remembering to focus on my life’s mission and actively understanding how the things I accomplish relate to my purpose has brought me more peace with the job I am (and am not) completing. As a consequence, it has favorably impacted my long-lasting happiness.” Another shared how they felt rejuvenated after finishing a leadership development programme: “I realized out that I was worn out. “[The programme] revitalized me… it charged my battery.”

Significantly, stress reductions were greater for sessions provided during the pandemic (a highly stressful time for many leaders) and for individuals with a higher baseline stress level. We also observed that leaders with higher degrees of emotional variability or neuroticism — qualities that tend to be related with chronic stress — reported bigger decreases in stress after completing a development programme. This shows that businesses should prioritize leadership development when employee stress is very high owing to collective or personal issues, since these programmes can assist de-stress people and strengthen their psychological resources.


One of the most intriguing discoveries from Harvard Business Review experiments was that shorter programmes frequently resulted in very substantial enhancements. In several instances, we discovered that a two- or four-day intensive had the same or even larger benefit than an equal four-week programme, and in some instances, it even led to gains in well-being comparable to those reported following therapeutic mental health therapies.

As a result, programme designers and participants alike may benefit from actively researching methods to compress these activities, since a shorter, more focused programme may yield greater effects while consuming less time and money.


Not everyone is open to self-improvement equally. Specifically, our research revealed that those with the clearest sense of self and the highest level of conscientiousness displayed the least positive change in response to development programmes. (Interestingly, these individuals also tended to have greater earnings, indicating that these characteristics may be associated with social status and pay.) Having a strong sense of self is certainly not a negative trait. Our findings may simply reflect the fact that these individuals are already more capable leaders and so have less room for improvement. But, it is also feasible that too optimistic self-perception might inhibit leaders from being vulnerable, so reducing their desire to go further.

Given these constraints, organizations must manage participants’ expectations regarding the precise learning outcomes of various programmes and assist them in selecting programmes that align with their unique learning objectives. When initiating a new development programme, it is generally useful to spend time creating the mentality required for learning and growth, such as through encouraging sensitivity and comfort with ambiguity. Eventually, our study demonstrates that participants will have varying degrees of development readiness, and some may require more assistance than others in order to benefit from these programmes.


Many studies in the field of psychology have demonstrated that when a one-time experience induces a shift in one’s state of mind, the improvement generally diminishes with time. People often adapt to their new circumstances, therefore short-term improvements may not inevitably result in long-term change. This effect was also seen in our own research, as improvements in the well-being of leaders tended to diminish in the months after the conclusion of a development programme.

In light of this, it would be prudent for organizations to differentiate between short-term success and actual, sustainable effect, and to ensure that their development efforts do not prioritize the former over the latter. Although it is frequently simpler to quantify immediate outcomes, the most effective programmes build on these initial improvements with reminders and other interventions aimed to foster long-term habits and sustained involvement.


As remote work becomes the norm, many firms have begun to investigate online leadership development opportunities. These programmes are typically less expensive and more efficient, and they facilitate instructors’ access to a bigger audience. Yet, some leaders remain reasonably concerned as to whether online training can be as beneficial as face-to-face programmes.

In spite of these concerns, our research suggests that there are no significant differences between online and in-person programmes in terms of their influence on personal development and well-being. Indeed, there may be other distinctions between in-person and online programmes that are beyond the scope of our study; nonetheless, our preliminary findings show that in many cases, online development can be just as beneficial as in-person development.

When justifying substantial expenditures in leadership development, many organisations prefer to place an almost sole emphasis on performance results or incomplete, subjective appraisals. Yet, our study indicates that these limited, clearly quantifiable benefits and subjective scores are only a portion of the picture. The finest leadership development programmes result in profound personal growth and enhance the joy, significance, and energy that individuals experience at work and in life. Fostering wellness is both an aim in and of itself and a crucial approach for driving performance and retention, particularly as businesses battle to retain employee engagement in the face of several global and local obstacles.

Obviously, leadership development programmes are not a silver bullet. Without efficient implementation, these applications are frequently unsuccessful. But, when done correctly, they may help both current and future leaders learn, engage, and prosper.