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Here’s how effective leadership development succeeds

«The task of leadership isn't to give people greatness, but to draw them out because the greatness is already there.» (John Buchan 1930, quoted from Adair 2005, p. 165). The view that the English politician and writer John Buchan expressed nearly 100 years ago is perhaps even more relevant today than it was in earlier industrial eras. Complex tasks require excellent human resources, and outstanding specialists and leaders are sometimes rarer than rare minerals in a competitive labour market—both essential resources for the 4.0 Industry.

Today, it's even more crucial for companies to promote their leaders in a targeted manner or develop new leadership skills from within the workforce. In this article, you'll learn how to achieve this.

What is leadership development?

Leaders are crucial to the success of a company. That's why leadership development is such an indispensable aspect of HR development. But unfortunately, there's no definition of leadership development that makes sense for all areas and needs—unless one resorts to very general and unhelpful formulations such as "targeted promotion and development of leadership competencies". You'll frequently read something like this, but it's of little help for concrete implementation.
It's much better to approach the topic with its objective in mind: the goal of developing leaders is to foster employees' leadership competencies in a time- and quality-appropriate manner. This would ensure that potential leaders will be ready to take on leadership positions precisely when required. Junior leaders should be prepared for upcoming tasks in due time. Active leaders should further develop their leadership skills (Bartscher & Nissen).

Concretely, this means that leadership development encompasses measures that, on the one side, record and assess leaders’ qualifications and, on the other hand, actively optimises them through controlled learning processes (Bausch 2019, 36). In short, leadership development aims to increase leaders’ effectiveness.

Why do leaders need to be developed?

Daily professional tasks and challenges, and the economic environment, have always been subject to constant changes. What was once state-of-the-art has now been replaced by new methods or techniques. To master their current professional challenges, all the employees in a company must continuously develop their competencies. This is especially true for leaders, who must have more competencies that aren’t limited to the factual knowledge of the industry.

The information society creates new challenges

The transformation from an industrial society to an information society has an additional impact on the demands placed on leaders. In the past, leaders primarily focused on the efficient design and control of production processes. It was assumed that the company’s success was guaranteed if the executive team were sufficiently equipped with industry-specific expertise.

A corporate and work organisation change characterises today's information society. The trend toward decentralisation and increasing flexibility of processes and tasks also poses new challenges for leadership. Internal company processes are becoming more knowledge-intensive, more complex and more communicative. For leaders, this means that in addition to technical knowledge, social-communicative and organisational skills are becoming increasingly important (Stadlbauer 2008, p. 21). As a result, the demands placed on leaders in these competence areas are increasing.

Soft skills as a key competence

In addition to the classic key qualifications, soft skills are also essential: social and emotional competencies such as the ability to moderate and work in a team. Modern specialists and top performers aspire to be managed in line with the current times, and they expect their superiors to have social skills. Moreover, in an economic environment characterised by a shortage of skilled workers, no company can afford to risk its valuable workforce and lose valued employees to the competition.

Therefore, companies’ future viability and strategies’ implementation are also jeopardised by insufficient social leadership skills (Bausch 2019, p. 37). Increasingly, qualitative leadership matters — not only for the professional and individual qualities of the respective individual leaders but also for collective interactions. Additionally, leadership skills are needed to respond to the employees’ increasing diversity and promote their independence. Finally, leadership qualities promote employee satisfaction and thus their loyalty to the company — an invaluable asset, especially in times of a general shortage of skilled workers.

What models of leadership development exist?

Methods for leadership development are taken from the general toolbox of personnel development. It’s essential to start by evaluating the company's own goals and processes, from which the need for leadership quality can be derived. Who’s needed and where? What are the specific requirements – in terms of expertise and human resources – a leader should have for a particular position?

The desired and required leadership competencies firstly need to be defined. Then, the individual competencies of leaders within the company are compared through an analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. Who already meets the criteria? Who can be brought up to the required level of competence through targeted promotion? Where would it be valuable to bring in a new hire?

When recruiting leaders from within the company, it is helpful to involve employees in the decision on development. Development goals set from "above" can be met with rejection—not a good prerequisite for high-quality leadership.

There are several approaches to elevate the leadership-specific development goals of the existing and future leaders to the established level of quality:


  • Trainee programs: young employees who showcase leadership qualities are introduced to all company areas. Individual skills can then be identified and nurtured to prepare them to take on leadership roles.
  • Training on the job: this is more than simply learning-by-doing. A successive expansion of the areas of responsibility and the levels of responsibility specifically prepare for leadership.
  • Mentoring by senior executives: experienced executives act as mentors and share their wealth of experience with junior executives. So, for example, it's possible to grand access to senior peers and corporate decision-makers for networking and to promote an increasing familiarity with the organisation's rules and processes.
  • Internal company rotation: participating in various processes from different domains doesn't simply improve the overall view of the company and its processes. It also reveals individual qualities that employees can profitably strengthen.
  • Lectures and workshops: these can be developed and conducted by competent representatives within the company or by external specialists.
  • Planning and role play: it isn't everyone's cup of tea, and some employees find role-playing silly. However, well-designed games enable a change of perspective and promote self-reflection— an essential skill for leaders.
  • Coaching measures within the company: external or internal coaches may also be used here. Coaching is most suitable in cases where leaders must strengthen specific and unique professional and social competencies necessary for leadership tasks in a targeted manner.


  • Participation in continuing education measures such as seminars and leadership programs: external programs are instrumental when the in-house resources are insufficient for high-quality leadership development.
  • Self-study: self-taught further training of employees supports their self-determination and competence to familiarise themselves with new topics on their own. However, this method isn't suitable for everyone, and feedback opportunities are severely limited.

Challenges in leadership development

Self-determined learning is more attractive to most people than linear guidelines. Especially, the "Generation Google" has a hard time with narrow learning concepts. Therefore, contemporary and future-oriented leadership development must meet the demands of openness for the new generation of leaders who value flexibility and self-determination. Otherwise, one will quickly fall behind in the current personnel market. (Fürstberger 2021, p. XII).

However, even if social skills are becoming increasingly important, this doesn't mean that "classic" skills have become meaningless. Even in the 21st century, leadership still works on three levels: strategic, operational and team-oriented. The secret to corporate success is excellent leadership on all these three levels (Adair 2005, p. 2). Even the most socially competent leadership won't help the company if it doesn't develop market strategies that are fit for the future. From here stems the challenge of modern leadership development: namely, the reflection on and promotion of all three areas.

The time of generalised leadership development and "off the shelf" leadership training is over. Instead, future leaders need development options that are both specialised and in line with international standards (Lixenfeld).

Feedback as a success factor: how leadership development succeeds

Current corporate success may be the direct evidence of good leadership quality. But it only provides limited insight into the future development possibilities. The leadership qualities needed by tomorrow's leaders must be secured today. In addition to raw numbers, the working atmosphere is crucial to keep employees in line. How leadership is perceived by those being led contributes to the overall company climate and is an essential pillar of leadership quality. It's, therefore, necessary to apply comprehensive assessment criteria.

Therefore, feedback discussions are an excellent starting point to evaluate and secure the success and effectiveness of leadership qualities. There are often significant differences between the self-image and the external image — i.e., the assessment of one's behaviour by others (cf. Pelz 2014, p. 253). Thanks to in-depth knowledge of external perceptions, leaders gain acceptance from their peers, and an accepted leader means efficient leadership. Feedback is also valuable and purposeful for the development of leaders. Today's executives aren't lonely decision-makers but socially competent workforce members. Reacting to how one's leadership is perceived and learning to adapt one's leadership accordingly should be the starting point of the leadership development process.

Continuous feedback brings external perception and self-perception into harmony

How do you achieve this unity of self-perception and external perception as a leader or on your way to becoming one? Thanks to feedback: targeted feedback on others' perception of one's behaviour. The more perspectives that are obtained, the better. Traditional feedback – in which the leader is given one-sided feedback from "above" – isn't very effective here. Comprehensive 360-degree or multi-source feedback (Pelz 2014, p. 254) involves a broader range of positions: leaders at higher levels of responsibility, colleagues at the same level of responsibility, employees, business partners, or customers. This opens up a view of the higher-level contexts. Regular 360-degree feedback enables leaders to continue their meaningful development and adapt their competencies — to ensure tomorrow's success.

Today, practical feedback tools are available to ensure constructive feedback and meet all the demands of a contemporary and mindful feedback culture. They increase feedback's efficiency and contribute to the success of leadership development.


Leaders who help a company pursue its goals don’t simply fall upon you, but they have to be developed in a targeted manner to prepare them for their future tasks. A wide range of different training methods are available for this purpose, but these approaches often don’t achieve anything without constructive feedback. Feedback allows (prospective) leaders to reflect on and adjust their actions. Self-reflection and appreciation of team interests are essential leadership competencies fostered via feedback-supported leadership development.


Lixenfeld, C. (2019): Wie sich Führungskräfte weiterentwickeln müssen. Abgerufen von:,3266686

Bartscher, T. / Nissen, R.: Führungskräfteentwicklung. Abgerufen von:

Pelz, W. (2014): Das 360-Grad-Feedback zur Erkennung und Entwicklung von Potentialträgern. In: Sauer, J. / Cisik, A. (Hgg.): In Deutschland führen die Falschen. Wie sich Unternehmen ändern müssen. Berlin: Quadriga Media. Abgerufen von:

Adair, J. E. (2005): How to Grow Leaders: The Seven Key Principles of Effective Leadership Development. London: Kogan Page

Stadlbauer, C. (2008): Betriebliche Führungskräfte-Entwicklung. Mechanismen der Selbstdisziplinierung. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Bausch, D. (2019): Personal- und Führungskräfteentwicklung im digitalen Transformationsprozess am Beispiel der Commerzbank AG (Praxisorientierte Personal- und Organisationsforschung 24). Augsburg/München: Nomos.

Fürstberger, G. (2021): Agile Führungskräfteentwicklung: Wie Führungskräfte selbstbestimmt und bedarfsorientiert lernen. Freiburg: Haufe.