Understanding of the Impact of Leadership Development


by Peter Sørensen, M.A., Ph.D., Aalborg University and University College Lillebaelt

Leadership development is big business. It is estimated to be a $14 billion industry in the United States. In my country, Denmark, with approximately 5.7 million people, the amount spent on adult continuing education, which includes leadership development, is estimated to be $4.5 billion. That’s a lot of money. But the size of the investment notwithstanding, it has been pointed out that the programs and activities devoted to leadership development are often based on little more than anecdotes, personal experience, and guesses about what might be effective—for the individual and for the organization. In other words, leadership development can too often be an act of blind faith.

That’s why the work devoted to the evaluation of leadership development is so important. And much has been learned from it—about the impact of different development programs (from one-day, informal courses to years-long formal programs) and about different techniques (such as classic lectures, action learning, feedback, self-study, and real-life simulations). However, because leadership development is a multidimensional and complex activity, much more needs to be done. And given the daunting challenges of assessing its impact, the evaluation effort needs to draw on every possible source of knowledge.

There is a longstanding body of research that can contribute significantly to this effort: the study of transfer of learning and training. Transfer of learning and training is the concept that researchers have applied to the process in which new knowledge, skills, and abilities learned in one context (e.g., in training) are applied to and maintained over time in another context (e.g., on the job). Thus, this work can help us understand what is necessary for people who have taken part in a leadership-development initiative to apply what they have learned back in the workplace. It can especially help us understand if there are certain conditions (what I refer to as transfer conditions) in the workplace that might help participants apply and maintain new knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Recently, using the work on transfer of learning and training as a basis, I did some preliminary research about what conditions in the workplace may promote the impact of leadership development. In my study of managers in the Danish public sector, I looked at nine possible conditions that the transfer literature suggested were likely to be important in this:

  1. Supervisor support (the extent to which supervisors or managers support and reinforce use of training on the job).
  2. Motivation to transfer (the direction, intensity, and persistence of effort toward utilizing in a work setting the skills and knowledge learned in training).
  3. Opportunity to use (the extent to which trainees are provided with or obtain resources and tasks on the job enabling them to use training on the job).
  4. Peer support (peers supporting and reinforcing on-the-job learning).
  5. Identification of organizational training needs (the extent to which organizational training needs are known to the individual).
  6. Identification of individual training needs (the extent to which individual training needs are known to the individual).
  7. Individual motivation to learn (the extent to which the individual is motivated to learn).
  8. Evaluation frequency (evaluation of the impact of the leadership-development program).
  9. Job satisfaction (satisfaction with current job).

I surveyed 127 public managers who had taken part in various kinds of leadership-development initiatives, asking them to rate how they experienced the nine types of support back on the job. I received 109 complete surveys (a response rate of 85%), and these were supplemented by another 19 partially completed surveys. Almost 78% of respondents who completed the whole survey were female. Participation was anonymous and voluntary. (For a full report on this research, see my article in March 2017 issue of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research.)

The results revealed a clear pattern of top three conditions that were rated as very common, a middle set of three that were rated common but not so much as the top three, and the bottom three that were rated remarkably lower than the rest:

Although these findings are preliminary and based on a particular context—namely, the Danish Public Sector—they are suggestive. Certainly it can be said that practitioners who are conducting leadership development initiatives should determine whether these nine conditions are in place, and they should pay particular attention to supervisor support, peer support, and evaluation frequency—which appear to be greatly underutilized techniques for facilitating the transfer of learning content to the job.

In the meantime, more research should be done that draws on the long-established work in transfer of learning and training. For instance, I am following up this assessment of the base-rate of transfer condition in the Danish public sector with a more in-depth study of how these conditions relate to development outcomes like increased knowledge, enhance performance, and organizational results. This type of research can contribute to an evidence-based understanding of how to maximize the impact of leadership development, thereby helping in the design and implementation of programs that are likely to result in a reasonable return on investment.


Click the link below to access an electronic copy of the original research article in APA’s psycnet database. (Access requires a subscription, or you can purchase individual articles.)

Sørensen, P. (2017). What research on learning transfer can teach about improving the impact of leadership-development initiatives. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 69, 47-62.

Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research publishes evidence-based articles that advance the body of professional knowledge and expertise for providing psychologically-based services to improve organizations and the people who work in them. It is a unique peer-reviewed journal; CPJ articles meet scientific standards for rigor and support, but are also readable, practical, and actionable.

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