What is Leadership Development, and Why Does It Matter?

What is Leadership Development, and Why Does It Matter?

May 25th 2022

Leadership is the most important factor in whether any team succeeds or fails. By “leadership,” we don’t just mean the senior executives at the top of an organization. When people at every level of an organization see themselves as leaders and step up to solve problems and lead, that team becomes unstoppable. But no one is born with the skills required to successfully lead. Leadership is a skill that must be learned and developed through continuous effort. While experience is a powerful teacher, no team has the time to wait for a lifetime of experiences to develop their leaders. No company or organization wants to suffer through catastrophic failures or even fatal consequences to learn leadership lessons. People must be trained to lead. This requires dedicated investment in leadership development. Why?

According to a recent report by background and employment screening services agency GoodHire, a staggering 82% of Americans said they would consider quitting their job because of a bad manager. Companies that don’t invest the time and resources necessary to develop their leaders only create obstacles to recruit and retain strong performers on their payroll.

That isn't to say there isn't more focus being placed on organizational leadership these days. Between a competitive job market, the gig economy, and general demand for businesses to care more about their people, modern employees are more willing to call out poor leadership. Don't make the mistake of thinking your business is in the clear simply because no one has complained.

If your management is toxic, you might well find your brand in an op-ed, as has recently been the fate of multiple video game publishers.

One of the most crucial steps in addressing this issue is through a leadership development program. The most successful companies recognized the need to develop their leaders. And as noted above, leadership isn’t just for the senior executive team, but for every employee, from c-suite to frontline managers to individual contributors. According to The Harvard Business Review, such a program isn't just beneficial for management. In an increasingly digital, collaborative workplaces, leadership skills are just as important for employees. At Echelon Front, we define a leader as anyone who interacts with other humans in any capacity. In those interactions, you use leadership skills to align, influence, and work together to accomplish goals. By this definition, everyone is a leader. Even the individual contributor who isn’t in charge of anybody else, but just themselves and their piece of the mission.

Unfortunately, there's no shortage of bad leadership advice on the web. No shortage of snake oil salespeople who will gleefully sell you the keys to a leadership development course filled with content you could have just as easily found on Wikipedia. As a result of these charlatans, people aren't entirely certain what leadership development entails, or even why it matters.

Let's see if we can clear the air.

The Power of an Effective Leadership Development Program

A traditional leadership development program tends to be laser-focused on individual skills and upward career mobility. It exists to train existing talent for an impending promotion. This narrow focus is an immense waste of potential. Rather than an individual endeavor, the only meaningful measure of leadership is whether the team succeeds or fails.

Leadership development at its core is about investing in one's employees. But it's also about supporting them. About arming them with the personalized guidance and knowledge they need to grow and thrive.

As noted by business coaching agency BetterUp, empowering your people with a culture focused on growth and development has very real benefits, all of which can easily result in a significant competitive advantage.

Strategic Thinking and Revenue Growth

One of the core teachings of most any leadership development program involves strategic thinking. As you might expect, the more strategic thinkers a business cultivates, the better-equipped it tends to be for challenges like market shifts and innovation from competitors. This usually manifests in the form of improved revenue and growth.

It's not just a matter of strategic thinking, though. By providing personalized leadership coaching, a business demonstrates that it actually cares about its employees. The employees, in turn, appreciate the investment the business has made in them—they'll not only tend to be more productive and engaged in the workplace, but also less likely to leave their job for the next opportunity to come up.

Talent Acquisition

Having a leadership development program in place doesn't just allow you to retain talent. It's also invaluable as a talent acquisition tool. Today's workers aren't just after a paycheck, nor are they going to be blindly loyal to a workplace simply because it deigned to employ them.

They need something more.

They need to know that the company will not only respect their autonomy and career goals, but that working at the company will actively help them pursue those goals. Almost nobody enjoys job hunting. Most people would, given the choice, prefer to grow and develop under the employ of a single business.

Improved Agility

Look at every market leader that eventually fell at the hands of a smaller, more innovative competitor. What did virtually every single one of those businesses have in common? Simply put, they weren't capable of changing—or at the very least, they couldn't pivot quickly enough to adapt to a shifting market.

Leaders must learn to innovate and adapt. Whether or not a business will remain mired in the past largely comes down to corporate culture. And its leaders who establish that culture. Ensuring the people at the helm of an organization are capable of adapting to periods of immense change and turmoil is crucial.

But it's just as important to ensure the employees are all on-board, as well.

Improved Collaboration

Circling back to the Harvard Business Review piece we cited earlier, collaboration and hybrid work tend to go hand-in-hand. As the world has embraced a distributed workforce, so too have businesses adopted myriad digital collaboration tools—all with the expectation that they'll allow employees to work together more effectively.

In order for that to be a possibility, however, people need more than a few fancy tools or shiny apps. They need, as HBR puts it, "the relevant technical, relational, and communication skills." A leadership development program can allow them to develop those skills, leading to deeper connections, better collaboration, and ultimately, a better workplace.

Better Fulfillment of Business Goals

A lot of people think that leadership is all about charisma and influence. While those two characteristics certainly play an important part, it's incredibly reductive to assume that they're the only traits necessary in an effective leader. Some people have even gone so far as to say that charisma is completely irrelevant in leadership—effective leaders don't need charisma.

There may be some truth to that. If a leader has no other skills beyond being a smooth talker, when push comes to shove they'll have no idea how to point your business in the right direction. For that reason, your leadership development program needs to focus on teaching something else.

How to define goals, break those goals into milestones, and break those milestones down into achievable tasks.

Better Communication, Fewer Mistakes

Communication is a critical aspect of leadership. That’s why the 2 nd Law of Combat is Simple. Leadership requires learning to communicate in a manner that is simple, clear and concise. Because when people don’t understand, they can’t execute.

In fairness, that may be a hyperbole for most businesses. But if you look at all the most significant blunders and missteps of the past decade, a large percentage of them can be boiled down to miscommunication. Someone either failed to communicate effectively, or didn't communicate at all.

By helping everyone in your organization develop their communication skills, you can avoid some rather significant public blunders. But more importantly, you'll be able to cultivate a less stressful, more productive workplace. According to motivational speaker Mack Dryden, there are a few factors at play here.

First, there's the matter of morale.Few things are more demoralizing and stressful than having no idea what you're supposed to be doing or why you're supposed to be doing it. It's one of the quickest ways to create a toxic workplace marred by burnout and resentment.

A lack of communication can also kill productivity and increase turnover. If leadership doesn't communicate properly, that likely means they also don't bother to connect with employees. As a result, people are left feeling underappreciated or underutilized.

Inevitably, they'll seek more fulfilling employment.

More Than Leadership—Growth

In a world defined by distributed work, employee autonomy, and digital collaboration, providing employees with the opportunity to develop their leadership skills is simply the smart play. The benefits of an effective leadership development program far outweigh the costs of implementation. It can help you improve your bottom line, cultivate a more fulfilling workplace, enhance business agility, and attract and retain better talent.

Because at the end of the day, leadership development programs aren't just about creating new leaders—they're about helping everyone in your business be better.