The Proven Importance of Leadership Development: Lessons from Case Studies

July 9, 2024

Can You Measure the Importance of Leadership Development in an Organization?

Growing up, I’m sure you observed that some favorite family meals became staples. For special days in my family, it was a pork roast, mashed potatoes, and corn. For daily breakfasts, I ate oatmeal with sliced bananas and brown sugar.

In hindsight, three things are clear:

  • We liked these meals, so they met an important objective.
  • They were simple to prepare. Long hours were not spent fixing them.
  • The outcome was extremely predictable and consistent.

Objectives that Display The Importance of Leadership Development

Those same elements apply as organizations consider their overall leadership development initiatives. Ideally, there would be an extremely tangible outcome. Many organizations engage in leadership development with a giant leap of faith, hoping that positive outcomes will emerge.

It would help if executives understood that the goal could be to have all leaders in the organization adopt more positive behavior. Rather than having a leadership team exhibiting average performance (compared to others), what if they behaved in a manner equivalent to the upper quartile of leaders in the best companies in the world? What if your firm’s leaders also had compelling data about the high correlations between better leadership behavior and business outcomes such as customer satisfaction, employee retention, productivity, innovation, and employee engagement?

The second objective should be simplicity. Simple solutions invariably work better than more complex ones.

One of the more popular recipes from the NY Times in recent years has been an artisan bread recipe that calls for three ingredients: all-purpose flour, Kosher salt, and dry yeast. (Well, it also requires some warm water. Does water count as an ingredient?)

We submit that the ingredients of effective leadership development are similarly simple. It requires:

  1. A learning methodology capable of changing behavior. There are several of these that we will describe later.
  2. The involvement of a significant number of participants. The late Peter Drucker believed that was a third to a half of the leadership population.
  3. A multi-year, sustained implementation. The longer it lasts, the better the result.

  Put those three ingredients together, and the outcome is assured.

A Deeper Dive into the Three Ingredients

1. Powerful learning methodologies. Fortunately, there are several from which to choose.

    1. 360-degree feedback
    2. Simulations
    3. Action learning projects
    4. Mentoring/Coaching
    5. Deliberate rotational assignments
    6. Participation in task forces, SWAT teams

What these all have in common is that they move from being cerebral to becoming more visceral. They contrast with sessions dominated by lectures and passive reading. We recommend those in which people are involved. Each one includes accountability and sustained feedback. They are active rather than passive.

Each has its plusses and minuses. Some are simpler to administer. Some are far more economical. Some engage the immediate manager in a more streamlined way. But all emphasize the importance of leadership development.

2. Involving a significant number of participants. Frankly, we are a bit amused by behemoth organizations that proudly proclaim their internal leadership development program, which each year has thirty participants who come together for a two-day experience. Yes, this is better than doing nothing, but to expect that this will move the needle on the overall effectiveness level of their entire leadership team is not reasonable.

In contrast, organizations that involve a significant portion of a leadership group have shown that over time, involving a larger number is one of the factors that causes a contagious, extending effect of the improved leadership development practiced by all leaders. Not only does the improved behavior trickle down to the immediate direct reports of those involved, but it also goes far beyond that. It permeates the entire body of leaders.

3. Sustained development over time. We have two notable case examples for which we have long-term data. It is fascinating to see the impact of time in each case.

Case Study 1: Importance of Leadership Development

First, the data on a large insurance firm with seven thousand employees comes from 360-degree feedback scores conducted with 837 participants over a nine-year period.

This firm’s development process entailed an initial 360-degree feedback assessment. Participants then analyzed their data and developed an individualized development plan.

We aggregated nine years of data into three-year periods. In the first three-year period, we tabulated the participant’s overall leadership effectiveness score, which was a summation of the instrument’s fifty-two items. The average of the participants’ overall scores was at the 56th percentile as they entered the process.

Participants in the next three-year period followed the same pattern. Their initial incoming overall leadership effectiveness scores were at the 62nd percentile. Finally, the participants in the third three-year period had incoming scores at the 70th percentile. These differences between the overall leadership effectiveness scores from one period to the next were highly statistically significant.

Case Study 1: Importance of Leadership Development

The firm was not engaged in other cultural change initiatives or development processes. We can find no other explanation for these significant improvements other than the pervasive, contagious effect of the leaders who had been developed earlier. We are convinced that their interactions with others produced this decided change in the leadership behavior of those around them.

Case Study 2: Importance of Leadership Development

We replicated this research with a prestigious Ivy League university’s leaders. Using the same technique, the same 360-degree feedback instrument, and the identical process for individuals developing a personal development plan, we measured gains over a 16-year period. In this case, we used 4-year periods. Initial scores in the first 4 years were at the 57th percentile, the next 4 years at the 60th, then at the 64th, and finally the last 4 years’ entering participants were at the 73rd percentile. Again, these differences are statistically, significantly different.

Importance of Leadership Development Case Study 2

Progress that Shows the Importance of Leadership Development Over Time

Is it possible to separate the impact of time from the impact of an increasing number of developed people operating in their system? Whichever causal effect it is, time or larger numbers, the outcome is a positive one for the organization.

The essentials of an effective leadership development plan aren’t shrouded in complexity or exclusivity. Just like preparing a beloved family meal, the ingredients for success in leadership development are straightforward and impactful. It’s about creating a culture of continuous improvement and engagement. By implementing proven methodologies, involving a significant portion of your leaders, and committing to sustained development, organizations can achieve remarkable results. These aren’t quick fixes, but long-term investments in the future of leadership.

These case studies from the large insurance firm and the Ivy League university showcase just how transformative these principles can be when applied consistently over time. Leadership isn’t just about the individual; it’s about raising the bar for everyone. And that’s what makes the difference—developing leaders who aren’t just going through the motions, but who are genuinely evolving and, in turn, elevating those around them. That’s the recipe for a thriving organizational culture.

—Jack Zenger