By Doug Bolger


Leadership Development is the ultimate grey zone. The black and white, done or not done thinkers nemesis. It is one of the longest-lasting verbs in one’s professional career. The goal, of course, is to be a great leader – so great in fact that fully competent replaces “developing” as soon as possible with a gold star and the search for some other achievement. Sadly, that is not how it works, ask any non-gold star carrying leader.

Leadership development is the ultimate challenge for any organization’s Senior Leadership staff and Human Resources teams. That’s because we know something that many of you do not. It’s not a secret exactly, its just a frequently overlooked or entirely ignored fact. All roads lead to leadership. That’s right, business going well over a period of time? It’s the Leader (s). Business having challenges? It’s the Leaders. So what to do? There are basically 3 levels of leadership development, general knowledge, specific programs and lived experiences. Knowing that you are never done, there is only one direction to proceed – Forward. Here’s how they break down.

There is no shortage of information on leadership principles and behaviours…several authors and speakers have survived the test of time, including Jim Collins, Brene Brown and Simon Synek. The format doesn’t matter much…book, tedTalk, podcast, they all do the trick. They all offer an insight into something that you probably already knew and had forgotten. Occasionally there are some new insights. They sharpen our focus and get us excited about leading again. Many of us will even take some of these “new” ideas and test them out. This is good leadership knowledge, and well worth the read, watch or listen. It’s not exactly leadership development. However, it does inform, inspire and educate. The influence is impactful in the moment, and largely short-lived as there is little consideration given to how to apply the learning to your current situation.

Next is the myriad of leadership programs available, ranging from 4 hours to 4 years. Most of these are module centred and focus on leadership competencies, including performance management, communication, delegation, etc. These are typically available in medium and large-sized organizations, and they are intended to go deeper than information only as they often have peer accountability, role-playing and project/ homework components built-in. Leadership programs vary widely in there use of adult learning principles and design, content and follow-though. Typically, leadership development programs work well in the moment and often have a modest level of “application” built-in. There is little evidence to support longer programs having longer or more impactful results.

The one variable is the extent to which Senior Leaders participate and practice the same leadership program as the full leadership/management team. When the FULL leadership team participates and adopts the language, behaviours and supports, the impact of the program is greatly enhanced. I often wonder if this would be the case without a “program”. In other words, I wonder if leadership skills and behaviours would increase organically if all leaders used a common, consistent and intentional language and set of behaviours that were supported and required. Would this give us a similar result? In other words, do we need more knowledge or do we need more consistent and intentional behaviour? Is leadership development simply the reinforcement of good leadership habits over time? Perhaps. It doesn’t explain why some leaders fail in certain circumstances – specifically tough circumstances or long tenures.

The final area of leadership development is the lived experience. Simply put, with knowledge, awareness, commitment and practice, many leaders learn the skills they need on the job through any combination of trial and error, observation, desperation, circumstances, aspiration and opportunity. Many of the best leaders have never taken a leadership course or finished a book (podcasts and TedTalks are 20-minute investments often combined with commuting or the treadmill). So how can organizations fast track the lived experience approach? We know it works; however, it takes too long – we can’t wait for the living to produce good leaders.


The immersive experience is a controlled, well designed, intense lived experience that happens over a few hours. It creates an environment that is focused, uncomfortable, challenging, stressful and entirely memorable. The combination lays down information in the brain that results in a combination of fast-tracked learning, a vivid experience and lasting results. The immediate debrief, and connection to the Leader’s real-world fuses the learning, the experience and the application immediately with lasting results. The impact of decisions, communication, behaviour, and direction is immediate and real – even when you know you are in a simulated environment, the brain responds and remembers as if the situation is real because the experience is real.

Leadership Development is a critical and continuous process. A great leader is never fully developed, and they know it even when others do not. Every organization knows that leadership skills are essential, and most invest as they are able. My experience is this. Keep working at it. Learn all you can. Invest in good programs that your senior teams participate in. Practice and learn as you go. If you want to fast track all of that, invest in immersive experiences that put people in unimaginable leadership roles. They will remember, learn and change for the good.


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