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5 Essentials for a Successful Leadership Development Program

  • POSTED ON JULY 13, 2023
Colleagues discussing the essential elements of a successful leadership development program

The need for effective leadership has never been more critical. Rapid advancements in technology, globalization, and an ever-changing business landscape create a pressure cooker of stress, overwhelm, and chaos for leaders.

The old paradigm of leadership is no longer effective; top-down leadership, creating order with rigidity, and trading pressure for performance is slowly fading.  It's time to embrace a new language of leadership that considers the increasing complexity and constant change leaders face today. In the face of these challenges, leadership development programs play a vital role in nurturing and cultivating capable leaders.

In the past, we have relegated the responsibility for developing leaders to the training department, HR, or talent development. And leadership development programs have been underappreciated, underfunded, and disconnected from strategic priorities.  Our Human Capital teams are still needed to create the vision and structure for transformational leadership development for their organizations. AND… to create a better future together, we must ALL take responsibility.

Successful leadership development programs are owned by all leaders, bosses, mentors, allies, and peers. We must be strong role models by growing ourselves, and we can all support the growth of others, which means anyone and everyone with whom we’re in a relationship.

Leadership Development Programs Need to Evolve

When it comes to leadership development, leaders aren’t solely defined by their professional skills. It's about much more than the expertise that got them into their leadership positions. Authentic, creative leadership takes a holistic approach, encompassing emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and leading from our whole selves—bringing together our hearts, minds, actions, and purpose.

To unlock the fullest human potential in others, we must first humanize our workplaces. With the rise of AI, leading from what makes us human is essential.  This means embracing a new kind of leader—one who values connection, empathy, and vulnerability. By incorporating these principles, we can co-create leadership development programs that nurture well-rounded leaders capable of thriving in today's ever-changing landscape.

5 Essential Elements of a Successful Leadership Development Program

The most transformative, enduring, and meaningful leadership development experiences involve the whole person. Leaders need to intellectualize what they’re learning (head), act on what they’re learning (gut/body), feel the response of their actions (heart/emotions), and be inspired by them (purpose/spirit) to grow further.

Here are five essential elements effective programs need to include to support the leaders of today and grow the leaders of tomorrow:

  1. Start with Self
  2. Deepen Ability to Relate
  3. Expand Range
  4. Develop Agility
  5. Create Belonging

By incorporating these essential elements, we can empower leaders to thrive, inspire their teams, and impact their organizations. Let's explore how we can elevate leadership development programs and help leaders embark on a path of transformation and growth.

1. Start with Self

To create transformative leadership development programs that unlock the full potential of today’s leaders we must begin by guiding them on an introspective journey, allowing them to reflect on and “see” more of themselves.  The goal is to deepen self-awareness, expand responsibility, and leverage strengths. We must also develop leaders capable of silencing inner critics, inviting and integrating regular feedback.

Self-Reflection and Self-Awareness

Getting to know oneself is where leadership development truly begins. In this space of self-reflection, leaders deep dive into their innermost thoughts and emotions to surface unconscious beliefs, intuitive urges, and hidden narratives. It involves exploring personal values, recognizing life purpose, acknowledging gaps, and identifying areas for growth.

Ownership and Personal Responsibility

Leaders must know how to take ownership and personal responsibility for their actions, outcomes, and impact. It takes courage to own our mistakes and make amends. Making mistakes is human, owning them is leadership. Developing these qualities can cultivate a new generation of leaders who confidently step up, make proactive decisions, and role model vulnerability for themselves and their organizations.

Leveraging Individual Strengths

Influential leaders have learned how to harness their unique strengths. When we guide leaders to identify and understand their capabilities, we enable them to maximize their impact and effectiveness. Leadership programs that identify and leverage strengths cultivate a culture of high performance and teamwork within organizations.

Managing Reactivity and the Inner Critic

Leaders face numerous challenges and pressures that can trigger reactive patterns, causing them to self protect and armor up. When we lead from “below the line” we risk lower performance and engagement in the organization. Well-designed leadership development programs invite leaders to shift from reactive behaviors to more responsive and creative behaviors.  Leaders need to identify their triggers, manage their inner saboteurs, and develop strategies to build resiliency to gracefully overcome obstacles and lead with self-assurance.

Asking for Feedback

Asking for and receiving feedback is essential fuel for leadership effectiveness and growth. Without a mirror, we tend to be more accidental versus intentional in our growth. Leadership development programs that incorporate multiple layers and mechanisms of feedback help leaders gain valuable insights, identify blind spots, and continually evolve. Programs need to nurture a growth mindset that embraces feedback, learns from failures, and continuously seeks improvement. Assessments, 360-degree feedback, or direct opportunities for giving and receiving feedback helps the SELF grow stronger.

2. Deepen Ability to Relate

As leaders, we are in a relationship at all times with ourselves, others, and the world around us. The strength of our leadership lies in our ability to connect deeply with others through empathy, transparency, and mutual empowerment. Focusing our leadership attention on others and what they need to thrive is the essence of servant leadership.

Cultivating Empathy

Empathy is a leadership superpower that elevates our relationships and our humanity at work. Leadership development programs need to focus on helping leaders cultivate empathy with emotional literacy, intentional listening and attention skills, and emphasizing respect and non judgment. Leaders must build the capability and courage to “be with” others on their emotional journey without fixing, judging, or fleeing.

Embracing Transparency

It may sound counterintuitive if you’re from the old guard, but leadership growth requires leaders to be open and human, allowing themselves to be seen by others. A willingness to share their true selves with their team is mandatory, building a culture of trust and transparency. Leadership development programs must encourage vulnerability and invite leaders to share their authentic selves as well as clear communications about the work.

Mutual Empowerment

Leadership development programs that challenge and shift traditional power dynamics equip leaders with the tools to invite equal and empowered relationships within their teams and organizations. The “lone wolf” style of leadership is outdated and limiting.  Co-created, equal partnerships and designed alliances foster a culture of collaboration, innovation, and mutual respect.

Servant Leadership

Outdated leadership models overemphasize problem solving as the key to success. There is an old saying that if you only have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Problem solving was our “hammer” and our people became “the nails”. People are not problems to be solved. They are resources to appreciate and nurture. Leaders who think they can “fix” others put themselves in a “better-than box” which moves others into a “less than box” that is broken or lacking in value.   Effective leadership development programs inspire leaders to embrace servant leadership. Leaders create a positive and empowering work environment by enabling others to thrive.

3. Expand Range

Leadership development programs need to invite leaders into the journey of expansion versus offering a single destination.  Leaders are constantly choosing from many options or screens.  These different ways of leading can be developed and expanded over time with the right program.  Some leaders need to focus more on self. Other leaders need to grow into better partners and co-leaders.  Taking a coach approach and leading from behind or leaning into courage and compassion to lead from the front are focal areas for other leaders. Multidimensional leadership is essential to navigate the complexities of today.  Expanding range is is an essential element of a successful leadership development program.

Authenticity and Leadership Style

Authenticity is the currency of inclusive leaders. Leaders must continually expand their own range while also creating a safe place for others to show up authentically. With this in mind, we need to create leadership programs that guide leaders in exploring and embracing their own leadership styles. It becomes a powerful foundation, enabling them to lead with integrity, create psychological safety and high levels of alignment needed for high performance.

Venturing Beyond Comfort Zones

To foster growth and development, effective programs need to get learners out of their comfort zones. Rather than relying on conventional teaching methods and outdated powerpoint presentations, create experiences that challenge participants, intentionally pushing them outside their familiar territory.

Designing safe yet disorienting events intentionally makes individuals uncomfortable and provides valuable learning opportunities. This discomfort becomes the catalyst for growth, enabling leaders to acquire new skills, develop diverse abilities, and adopt behaviors that expand their leadership repertoire.

Learn by Doing

Leadership is not merely an intellectual exercise confined to books, classroom lectures, dry presentations, and theoretical concepts. Experiential learning is essential for leaders to develop practical skills and navigate real-world challenges. Effective programs immerse participants in real-world challenges where they can apply their skills, take risks, make decisions under pressure, and learn from the outcomes. In this way, they engage their whole selves (mind, body, heart, and spirit) to gain practical insights and develop the resilience to navigate complex situations in a safe place where failure is celebrated on the path to success.

4. Develop Agility

In our ever-evolving world, change is the only constant. We have a crucial role in creating leadership programs that equip leaders to navigate the challenges of our VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) reality. Programs that develop agility help leaders develop the confidence needed for speed, the clarity needed to navigate change, the stamina to persevere, and constant dedication to aligning and coordinating across the organization as well as within their teams.

Change leadership is more than adapting to the latest trends or adjusting strategies. It's a mindset that embraces change as an opportunity for growth, innovation, and transformation. It’s like shifting from Hopscotch to Twister. Your leadership development program can guide leaders in developing the skills and mindset necessary to galvanize cultures and transform results.

Go Slow to Go Fast

There is clearly a serious “need for speed” in business today. Instead of promoting and encouraging speed, leadership development programs need to encourage intentional and planful creativity to meet the challenges of our VUCA world.

Help leaders develop a keen sense of awareness and an ability to assess situations rapidly, make informed decisions, and seize opportunities amidst the chaos. Empower leaders to recognize when it's time to pivot and make bold shifts in direction. Teach them how to evaluate situations, weigh risks and rewards, and make strategic decisions that drive positive change. This approach creates stronger, more sustainable outcomes.  In other words, we need to go slow to go fast.

Clarity and Communication are Key

Organizations often assume leaders are competent communicators.  But assumptions can derail even the best-intended programs.  Effective leadership development programs need to grow both presence and competency to clearly and effectively communicate with compassion and vision.

Embrace Creativity

Encourage leaders to think outside the box, challenge the status quo, and explore new possibilities. Provide them with frameworks and techniques to foster creativity and inspire innovative thinking in their teams.

Sustainability is a Strength

Perseverance, resilience, and sustainability are all essential leadership competencies.  Leaders need to build their endurance and stamina to be agile leaders of change. Help them understand the importance of sustainable leadership in a changing world. Guide them in incorporating sustainable practices and responsible decision-making into their leadership approach. Foster a culture that celebrates learning, growth, and continuous improvement.

Alignment is Everything

Building coalitions and connections creates nimble organizations. Lean into the mindset that we are “better together”. Seek to build strong coalitions and networks for alignment.

By developing agility in leaders, your leadership programs can create a ripple effect of positive change throughout organizations. With your guidance, leaders will not only navigate the complexities of our ever-changing world but unleash the potential of the people and organization.

5. Create Belonging

An environment of togetherness and connectivity helps leaders learn and grow collectively.

Cohort-Based Learning

Imagine a group of individuals, driven by similar goals and facing comparable challenges, coming together to embark on a transformative learning journey. This is cohort-based learning in action. Assembling leaders into cohorts facilitates a dynamic and supportive learning environment. Leaders can share their experiences, exchange insights, and learn from one another, ultimately amplifying their growth and development.

As they engage in group discussions, collaborative projects, and shared learning activities, leaders can harness the collective wisdom and experiences of their peers. A collaborative learning approach expands their perspectives and encourages mutual growth and development.

Network and Community

Leaders form meaningful connections and build a supportive network when they stay connected with the same group of people over time. They become learning buddies, supporting and encouraging each other along the way. This network provides a valuable resource for leaders to tap into diverse perspectives, gain new insights, and collaborate on shared projects. Together, they foster an inclusive and empowering community across the organization.

Better Together

The next generation of leadership development must go beyond “check the box” Diversity, Equity, Inclusion classes. To take a stand for humanizing our workplaces, leaders must embrace and create wholeness in themselves and others. We are all responsible for creating safe and inclusive spaces where people from diverse backgrounds can come together, learn from one another, celebrate their unique strengths and achieve great things. An environment that values and appreciates diversity allows a culture of respect, empathy, and inclusivity to grow.

Wrapping It Up

Effective leadership development programs play a vital role in shaping well-rounded leaders and delivering results in a highly complex, evolving landscape. Investing in these key elements will empower leaders to lead with authenticity, responsibility, empathy, courage, agility, and maybe most importantly a culture of wholeness and belonging.

Learn more about the essential elements of a successful Leadership Development Program through our Co-Active Leadership Program

Barb Van Hare
Written By

Barb Van Hare  

Barb has 28+ years of experience as a Leadership Coach, Talent Development Leader, and Organization Change Consultant. As the Founder and President of Kinetic Clarity (, Barb helps leaders, teams, cultures, and crowds find more range, resiliency, and meaning in their work. She loves helping her clients navigate the increasing complexity of our world with coaching, assessments, training, and consulting. She has extensive business consulting experience with Accenture, IBM Global Services, and regional firms, as well as corporate HR leadership experience. Barb currently works on a joint task force between the ICF (International Coach Federation) and ACMP (Association of Change Management Professionals) exploring the intersection of Change Management and Coaching. Barb loves the beautiful Colorado Rocky Mountains she calls home. She lives with her husband, 2 boys (admittedly they are now young adults), and extended family where she enjoys using her Co-Active skills every day.  

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