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What is Leadership Development? The Process, Who it's for, & Why it's Important

by Thuy Sindell, PhD. and Milo Sindell, MS.

What is Leadership Development?

Leadership development is the process of enhancing the leadership abilities of any member of an organization. Honing, developing, and effectively applying good leadership is a key part of any leaders’ job and success. Leadership development is the process of developing and refining those key proficiencies.

When focusing on leadership development, you develop the skill sets needed to better perform roles in leadership positions. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership development. This is particularly true with leadership coaching, which is the most effective way to accelerate leadership performance. Leadership coaching is a tailored approach utilizing assessments, individualized goals, and one-on-one relationships which is are a big part of its impact.

Leadership development is meant to help leaders in a variety of roles from individual contributors to C suite executives better lead and improve leadership skills to meet new demands. Effective leaders are able to motivate not only people they formally lead but engage peers and others over whom they lack any formal authority.

Why is leadership development Important?

Leadership development is important because the leadership abilities of business leaders influence the outcome of employees’ activities at every job level. Without the resources and skills needed to lead effectively, entire organizations struggle unnecessarily.

Leadership is applied in many ways in large organizations. As a leader, you will eventually be expected to take on new leadership initiatives. Leadership development is meant to help prepare you for the wide range of demands and new challenges that can be placed upon you.

Future Leaders: Long-Term Employee Retention

Beyond the demands of taking on leadership roles, there are secondary benefits to leadership development. One of the more valuable benefits in the modern, dynamic, hard skills-based workplace is employee retention. To be able to retain top talent is an important goal for a competitive company.

The best employees won’t want to stay in the same place for their entire careers. They will want to have a stronger positive impact and thus think about their future prospects. One 2016 LinkedIn study found that the top reason people left their jobs was a lack of career advancement opportunities. Investing in employees through helping to develop their leadership skills can be an important part of a larger employee retention strategy.

Return On Investment

One of the main reasons companies are hesitant to engage in leadership development is the simple question of cost. Customer satisfaction ultimately leans on ROI, after all. This concern may lead them to opt for small-scale leadership development, or in some cases to forgo the process entirely.

The best leadership development programs understand this and actually work on making their services a good investment with clear ROI for the organizations they work with.

Let’s delve into the many specific details of leadership development.

What Are The Leadership Development Skills?

These are the skills that get improved in the process of leadership development.

Leadership Skills

Leadership skills are soft skills that are applied by great leaders in any leadership situation. Tied closely with communication and influence, the leadership aspect is about establishing yourself as the authority figure whom team members should look up to and defer to.

Our Programs focus heavily on key competencies like:


Influence skills are needed to influence others on your team to think alike and connect with your “shared reality”. Influence, by definition, is your ability to impact the thoughts and actions of others. Great influencers have the potential to become great leaders.

Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking leads to the creation of a strategic plan. This in turn leads to better strategy execution. Strategy execution affects the day-to-day structures and systems in organizations. So, it should be no surprise that strategic thinking is a key leadership ability. Actually applying strategic thinking in a practical way in dynamic organizations is a skill and responsibility which must be enhanced when developing leaders.


The art of delegation is one where even good leaders can struggle. Delegation as a part of leadership development is about delegating tasks in a way that:

  • Puts the right people in the right places
  • Motivates employees to perform as best they can

The demands of delegation in a company require leaders to know how to influence people. The ability to know what makes people tick and how to talk to them, and if need be, challenge them, is key to keeping a business running.

Coaching and Mentoring

Coaching and mentoring are required of many C Suite and other employees who are in the position to develop and help retain talent. To lead people is often to enable them to take on leadership responsibilities of their own.

In good development programs, unlimited access to coaching is necessary at times. Likewise, leaders must sometimes conduct in depth interviews and apply other methods and skills to develop new talent.

Executive Presence

This is a critical skill for C Suite and in fact all leaders to focus on. “Executive presence” is an aspect of positional leadership (in this case, leading down). The topic has been explored in detail by several leaders and authors. What it means in terms of leadership is linking your merits as a competent individual who has assumed a leadership role and your practical application of leadership.


The importance of resilience is self-explanatory. Leaders must constantly learn how to better handle unexpected situations in the workplace. A lack of resilience in an organization’s leadership harms relationships and the organization more broadly.

Secondary Leader Competencies

There are other core leadership competencies that are improved naturally as a side effect of professional leadership development training.

Communication Skills

These skills are key to both leadership and influence because without them you cannot be a good leader. Effective communication skills include:

  • Listening skills (not just listening, but inferring and reading into what people are not necessarily communicating effectively.)
  • Speaking skills (tone, decisiveness, respect.)
  • Observational skills
  • Empathy skills (you must show that you’re empathetic and care, but you must walk the tightrope between robotic coldness and inappropriate warmness.)

Negotiation Skills

Negotiation skills are a specific category that lends itself to proficient leadership and influence. It’s a given that leaders’ incentives may not always align with the incentives of those they’re exercising leadership over. Knowing how to negotiate can easily become one of the key leadership skills in a wide variety of leadership roles.


Leadership and accountability go hand-in-hand. An in-depth understanding of accountability and leadership expectations is necessary for leaders.

Performance Management

Performance management is a corporate management concept that covers practices for managing employees’ work. It is both a skill set of delegating work and of monitoring and evaluating work.

Crisis Management

Leaders must often remain leaders through good times and bad. Crisis management is the leadership skill that covers how leaders confront unexpected and disruptive events.

Leaders must become proficient in leading through periods of crisis.

Change Management

We’ve gone over how modern organizations are increasingly dynamic. Change management is a leadership skill that covers navigating change and ensuring the business stays afloat on the new course.

Goal Setting

Goal setting as an aspect of leadership means:

  • Seeing the big picture
  • Turning an idea into an actionable process
  • Having reasonable expectations
  • Aligning individual/team goals and incentives

Goal setting as a leader is setting a balance between:

  • Individuals’ and company goals
  • Individuals’ realistic capabilities and company demands

Talent Development

This skill is about discovering competencies and creating high-performing employees. It is the other end of talent management. Talent management is the anticipation of human capital requirements and how you plan to meet those needs.

But Perhaps Most Importantly Leadership Development Helps Attract & Retain Top Talent

Leadership development is great for talent retention. Lack of career advancement opportunities was found to be the number one reason people voluntarily leave their jobs. The 2016 LinkedIn study found that was the reason in 43% of cases.

What is a Leadership Development Program?

Leadership development programs are meant to help create a company become better-run. They can range in comprehensiveness, but the goal is always the same; to train better leaders for the company.

A leadership development program is about developing leadership competencies. That means each program helps students develop skills such as leadership acumen and the leadership skills listed above.

With a more comprehensive leadership development program, the goals expand to include a shift in organizational culture. Employees in senior positions and others gain access to the coaching they need to become competent future leaders when their job calls for it.

Increasingly, the leadership development industry is responding to the needs of a more technical and dynamic workforce. As employees become increasingly specialized in their skills, competent leadership is needed to utilize their skills.

So, leadership development is about creating other leaders out of any portion of an organization’s employees. Then, it is also about navigating change in organizational culture.

How is Leadership Developed?

Leadership is developed in a program by developing the key leadership skills in individuals. It is a multi-stage process where organizations invest the time and money needed to create over a set period. These programs are based on modern leadership models leaning on empirical research and working with the most modern technology.

What are the Components of Leadership Development?

The leadership development process starts with the essential part: assessing current leadership and employees’ individual leadership competencies.

The framework of development is broken down into four sections:

Leadership Assessments

Leadership development starts with assessments. The first step is to determine each student’s starting point. Each employee has their own strengths, experiences, concerns, and competencies. So, many people will end up developing unique skill sets, while there will normally be numbers of students developing or improving similar skills.

By having employees undergo leadership assessments, a leadership development program can identify opportunities for improvement. This then allows for individual plans for the development of each future leader. Lastly, the assessments create the baseline for comparisons and ongoing assessments once the leadership development program is completed.

Prioritizing Objectives

Leadership development skills that can be taught and measured fall into four categories:

  • Leading self
  • Leading others
  • Leading the organization
  • Leading implementation

Within the above categories, there are a total of 28 competencies that can be developed. The second stage of a development program is identifying and customizing them for each employee.

Based on the assessments conducted ahead of this step, the coach, future leader, and their manager identify the three competencies best developed. Then, they relate those development paths with the best paths for furthering company objectives.

During this step, communication is key. The three parties must work together to provide clear objectives and realistic expectations.

Applying New Learning

Success in a leadership development program is achieved through on-the-job learning. Each student is provided a path tailored to their unique needs and competencies. They are delivered as online courses, with new content unlocked periodically. Once open, the content can be accessed online whenever the student wishes. However, the student will also continue working with the development coach. The coach works with the student one-on-one, supporting their learning process and getting them to apply the lessons throughout the work day.

Most of the success of each program comes in the same way: the student’s testing of their new lessons inside the workplace. Application through immersive learning is the only way to truly increase success. Students first absorb new concepts and methods, then apply them in this third stage. The online courses and coaches provide the context and guidance the student needs. The coach is responsible for reinforcing connections between the course materials and the student’s own work. This is a part of why the one-on-one relationship between the coach and each student is key to the program’s success.

Measuring Results

Of course, nothing here can be useful without success measurements and ongoing post-course improvement. In fact, this stage is the one that separates the good programs from the bad. A lack of tracking and measurement capacities is a big problem for an organization hoping for genuine leadership development.

Technology-enabled tracking and measurement enables each student’s progress to be followed. Within one program, all student’s results are broken into data streams that are tracked, synthesized, and presented to administrators (who have the relevant access permissions). The data being tracked includes:

  • Individual goals
  • Participation
  • Engagement
  • Goal progress
  • Skill development

In addition, the software tracks the larger cohort to assess progress as a group, not just tracking each individual. Big-picture tracking also includes program-wide analytics, comparing one business with cohorts from other organizations.

The metrics are set up to be able to identify skill gaps, strengths, and developing opportunities. Organizations can focus on proactive decision- making. This helps promote long-term performance development.

Each leadership development program will normally include a few reassessments. These typically take place at the halfway mark and again at the end of the program. They normally include in depth interviews and assessments of the employees’ progress.

What are Examples of Leadership development?

Leadership development practices can be applied in a wide variety of situations. For example…

Case #1

Company A’s HR Team is aware of ongoing conflicts between the VPs over work procedures that some VPs are worried are inefficient. The HR leaders want to provide their C suite with the specific skills they need for conflict resolution . The conflict between the VPs seems to stem from basic disagreements, but it’s clear that further unmet needs and perhaps even simple personality conflicts are jeopardizing V-level management.

The HR leaders agree to introduce a development program. Over the course of the program, communication abilities are developed/enhanced, giving each C suite executive the ability to handle conflict resolution professionally while enabling them to better address other underlying problems.

Case #2

Company B’s CEO wants to boost employee engagement throughout her organization. Namely, she wants to improve employee retention and development within the organizational culture. So, she organizes leadership development, training all relevant staff to prepare for the necessary shift.

Develop Leaders at Your Organization

Developing leaders ensures the continuity of your organization. The next generation of leaders will certainly take time to be developed. But to do so, you need quality leadership development that addresses the possible shortcomings of short-sighted attempts at development. Continuity requires long-term follow ups.

With comprehensive, high-quality leadership development programs, leaders benefit from enhanced:

  • Communication in all workplace situations
  • Positional and relational leadership
  • Leadership skills
  • Problem-solving
  • Leadership innovation

Your organization also benefits as a whole through more proficient leadership and an enhanced reputation. All leaders can benefit.

Senior Leaders

Achieving a vision is both more important and more difficult as a senior leader. Development benefits for senior leaders include becoming more inspirational, influential, and an enhanced presence.


Executives got to where they are by utilizing their strengths. But sometimes those very strengths and differentiators that made them successful in the past can become blind spots when over-utilized, or are no longer what is necessary to succeed at the next level or have become obsolete as the organization grows and adapts to ever changing market conditions.

Mid-Level Managers

Positional leadership is an important skillset for mid-level managers. Whether it’s more effective meetings, team member management, or employee engagement, mid-level managers have unique assessment and coaching needs.

First Time Managers

First-time managers are often forced to learn on the job. But there are fundamental skills needed to capitalize on first-time managers’ positions.

High Potentials

Your organization can benefit from the potential of other employees. “High potentials” expect a bit more than old-fashioned training. Training for these employees includes more personalized and actionable development.


Good leadership development programs are built with an understanding of the unique challenges women leaders face. To meet those unique needs, specific coaching tailored to current and rising women leaders is available.

Leadership Development Training vs Traditional Education

Traditional executive leadership education no longer prepares leadership for modern challenges. Productive collaboration requires more communicative, perceptual, and interpretive skills. However, most traditional executive leadership education is based on discipline-based skills.

This way of developing leadership is now in a state of upheaval as CLOs make sense of their annual training budgets.

What is learned isn’t necessarily applied. This is true of all studies, but leadership positions require learning that is both applicable and measurable. This is perhaps the most significant difference between traditional education and modern leadership development programs. For example, this is reflected in the methodology for assessing program participants.

360 Assessments

360-degree assessments are named after how participants receive qualitative and quantitative feedback from all relevant perspectives. Those above, below, and to the side of the leader provide feedback. While it’s a 3-sided assessment, 360 assessments do cover all relevant angles.

Each 360 assessment has 3 parts:

  1. Collecting data
  2. Interpreting the collected data
  3. Acting on the interpretations

The bottom line of 360 assessments is that companies that volunteer for them have a process to gather feedback that they could not get in any other way. This then leads to (with a good follow-up process) a long-term plan for improvement.

Modern Leadership Development Programs

Modern leadership development programs fill in the gaps left by outdated processes, which include:

  • A lack of adaptability in the modern dynamic business
  • No continuity
  • Balance between current workloads and the training’s demands
  • A stagnant bottom line

A leadership development program built for the modern workplace hits the right notes for the needs of all employees in a major role.

Why participate in a leadership development program?

Personalize Learning

Again, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution to leadership acumen. Leadership development includes a personalized learning process, starting with a personal assessment and nurtured by continuous one-on-one work with a coach. Each leader in an organization already brings certain assets to the table, while lacking in other areas.

Participating in a leadership development program can rectify these issues with personalized coaching and learning for a more positive impact.

Measured Improvement

Critically, measuring success by the most up-to-date standards is important throughout an entire course and beyond. The soft skills that any leader can learn can (and are) easily forgotten with traditional development models.

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