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Five steps for rethinking leadership development

Tom Pearce Tom Pearce

Leadership has never been more challenging. Tom Pearce explains how you can build individual and organisational resilience through leadership development.

Between an uncertain business environment, remote working, changing business and operating models, and ongoing developments with Brexit and COVID-19, these are tough times for leaders and managers.

These shifting contexts on top of 'business-as-usual' priorities, can make even the most-experienced managers feel uncertain and in need of support to navigate the challenges.

Learn more about our work with Activate and other business schools >>

Support to succeed

Organisations are increasingly asking more of their people at every level. On average, 60% of first-line managers are responsible for 80% of the workforce 1.

These managers are often in a position to identify potential issues, as well as opportunities to generate value from their teams. Yet, they can also be a single point of failure in times of change and uncertainty. Leadership and management development is vital in supporting these individuals to step up and confront these challenges.

In 2012, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) completed its largest management survey. It found that 43% of UK managers rated their own line manager as ineffective with only one-in-five managers ever receiving formal management development 2.

High-performing organisations recognised the importance of developing their leaders and managers through both structured and informal approaches. Almost a decade on, we've seen great examples of leadership development across a range of sectors and organisations. 

Developing leadership skills

Effective leadership development is proven to create better performance results than wider workforce or capital investments. Perhaps this is unsurprising when learning and development more broadly ranks as a top priority in most employee engagement surveys, particularly leadership development among managers.

According to the Business Barometer 2020 3, three in 10 businesses will increase their learning and development budget and prioritise leadership and management ahead of industry-specific skills. 

The old adage of 'leaders inspire and managers do' is true, to an extent. Yet, all leaders and managers find themselves having to do a fair amount of both, going between different modes in given situations and thinking about where they can have the best impact, and leadership development can help provide the support they need to succeed.

Five steps to develop resilient leadership

Through the work we do with almost 2,000 leaders and managers, we identified five common themes that support people in developing knowledge, skills and behaviours to bolster individual and organisational resilience:

1 Self-awareness

To manage others, you need to first manage yourself. Better understanding of potential blind spots or psychological barriers to development can help unlock immediate performance gains and provide experience to help develop team members.

Whether it's completing psychometric tests or making time for regular reflection, development can provide the space, time and means for personal reflection and garnering honest feedback that might not always be possible in day-to-day roles.

2 Networks

We recommend bringing peers together as part of a leadership development intervention. Managers and leaders can quickly gain exposure to new ways of working and learn from the experience, skill set and approach of others. Learning networks on a team or group basis provide an ongoing source of support and career development.

For first-time managers and departmental heads, creating a cohort from across the business can help break down siloed thinking and directly develop knowledge of those business areas. Leaders at a more-senior level may benefit from a sector-specific or cross-sector version to build their networks externally, and learn through comparing their own experiences and challenges with others.

3 Innovation

Leadership development helps empower individuals to confront the big challenges and provide the competencies required to lead on change.

Being exposed to different business practices can also encourage greater intellectual curiosity and questioning. Meanwhile, classroom teaching and independent research may spark new ideas with scope to see through to implementation through relevant project work. 

4 Communication

In 2018 our People Power report 4 found that 27% of businesses offered either formal or informal development on communication.

The importance of communication during this period of uncertainty and remote working has tested managers and leaders to communicate in new ways. Practice and experience in adapting to new communication styles and differing personalities can make this easier.

5 Technical

Leaders often develop 'T-like' specialisms. They start with a background in a particular area before branching out into their first management or leadership role with broader applied knowledge over more areas.

For example, coming from a finance, operations, HR or commercial background can mean a leader has little-to-no experience in other technical areas of management, leaving potential gaps to fill on-the-job.

Often through unfamiliarity, these areas build up more in the minds of individuals. They may have a fear of producing budgets or of having difficult conversations, for instance.

It's important to help them overcome these barriers. Leadership development programmes can be a useful way to fill in any gaps in knowledge and establish a quality benchmark.

Resilient leadership for better performance

Organisations need effective leadership and management at all levels, and those leaders need the right support to achieve their potential. There are practical steps to develop managers and support leaders at all levels to achieve more. 

Find out more about the management development we offer in partnership with Activate Business School >>


1 The Frontline Advantage, Harvard Business Review, May 2011.

2 BIS Leadership & Management in the UK – the key to sustainable growth: A summary of the evidence for the value of investing in leadership and management development, BIS, July 2012

3 Business Barometer 2020 launches: Key skills gaps remain as businesses plan for recovery, The Open University, 2020

4 People power, fuelling your growth through talent and skills, Grant Thornton UK LLP, 2018 [ 2857 kb ]

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