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What works in leadership development? Seven ways to create effective programs

17 May 2023

News and media


Image of a woman speaking at a group meeting

Across the world, organisations spend US$60 billion a year on leadership development programs, and leadership development often claims the largest share of training and development budgets. Despite this, many organisations fail to realise the true potential of leadership development with one estimate finding that just 10 per cent of spending on corporate leadership training delivers concrete results. 

Harvard Kennedy School’s Dr Dana Born, a world authority on leadership development and a regular presenter of ANZSOG programs, says that leadership development works best, and was able to show an impact and a return on investment, when it changed ‘the whole person’ and delivered psychological value. 

Dr Born presented a free ANZSOG masterclass on What Makes Leader (ship) Development Succeed that looked at ways to develop both leaders as people, and leadership as a capacity within organisations. Dr Born will also be presenting a masterclass as part of ANZSOG’s Public Leadership Masterclass series, and her own ANZSOG workshop on Courageous Leadership in June. 

She said that leadership development sought to understand, predict, and intervene effectively both how individuals, and collections of individuals, develop a capacity for leadership. 

“Growth and development are essential and universal human needs, the satisfaction of which results in greater well-being,” she said. 

She said that organisations were rightly focused on increasing employee wellbeing, but often neglected the wellbeing of leaders which was equally important, as it spilled over to whole teams and organisations. 

Dr Born said that during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns, a majority of employees reported a decline in general well-being (85%) and workplace well-being (89%).  

In some respects, this was the intensification of a longterm trend towards greater employee dissatisfaction and rising rates of burnout. A global survey found that, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of burnout were increasing, and that 89% of respondents said their work life was getting worse while 56% said their job demands had increased. 

Leadership development that focuses on growth and wellbeing, and creates a sense of meaning, can help organisations to retain staff and build better functioning teams. 

Recently published research co-authored by Dr Born, Ayse Yemiscigil and Horace Ling sought to examine what leadership development programs actually accomplish, and whether they make meaningful and lasting positive change to leaders. 

It 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 behaviours 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. 

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. 

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.” 

4. Don’t underestimate short, intensive programs. 

One of the most interesting findings in the studies was that shorter programs often yielded surprisingly large improvements. In some cases, 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. 

5. Acknowledge and address psychological barriers to growth. 

Not everyone is equally open to self-improvement. In particular, the 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. The results may simply reflect that these individuals are already stronger leaders, and thus have less need for further development. 

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 the research as well, as improvements in leaders’ wellbeing tended to disappear in the months after the completion of a development program. 

7. Embrace online learning. 

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. The research found no significant differences between online and in-person programs as far as their impact on personal growth and wellbeing. 


Dr Born’s research concluded that under the right circumstances, leadership development could have a substantial positive impact on employees and employers. It can drive personal growth, a clearer sense of self, greater meaning and purpose in life and at work, greater happiness, and reduced stress. This in turn can foster improved engagement and effectiveness, empowering leaders to better support their teams and organisations – as well as boosting mental health and wellbeing. 

“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.” 


ANZSOG is currently accepting applications and expressions of interest for a range of our education programs. 

Deputies Leadership Program – (18 Sep – 14 Nov) aimed at recently appointed Deputies, this program focuses on resilience, integrity and effectiveness, and building understanding of the potential and challenges of the deputy role, through frank discussions with academics and practitioners. 

The Executive Fellows Program – (6 – 17 Nov) designed for senior public sector executives, the EFP uses immersive face-to-face sessions to build leadership, management and strategic skills and broaden understanding of the environment in which the public service operates. 

Towards Strategic Leadership (Express) – (17 Aug – 23 Oct) a condensed version of the Towards Strategic Leadership program, TSL Express mixes online and face-to-face content tailored to prepare leaders for the volatile and uncertain times facing the public sector today. Leaders will gain a renewed strategic outlook, political astuteness, and the capacity to reflect and learn continuously.   

Public Leadership Masterclass series – (June-November 2023) A series of 2-hour masterclasses designed to give public leaders exposure to new ideas and thinking in a flexible format that fits into the workday and allows agencies to pick and choose sessions relevant to them. Includes sessions on data bias, negotiation, diversity and leadership, community-centred design, and designing policies to enhance wellbeing.