Developing leaders

What influences people to become a leader or to develop their leadership capacities?

Developing leaders

Currently, there are three stories fighting for space in my mind:

  1. How does organizational culture develop through an organization and what can social network analysis (also called organizational network analysis) tell us about the development process?
  2. Leadership as a behavior that is context-dependent and not related to stable traits. That means leadership can be developed.
  3. Continuing on last week’s post on virtual teams: What factors impact the development of trust in a remote team, a team where team members are distributed in different locations.

In today’s post, I will be writing on the topic of leadership development. The article on organizational culture and social network analysis is quite dense using theories from cognitive anthropology - which is not my expertise. The best part of this is that I’m going to be learning something new. But it will take some time.

Before talking about leadership behavior, I like to share an insight I gained from Sunbelt, the annual conference of social network researchers.

Most often when people think about who should be on their team, they think about big shots, experts, influencers. But the message here is simple: You need storytellers to keep the team together when shit hits the fan.

Leadership Development

The big idea from today’s post is that before you start working on your leadership skills you need to decide: Do I want to become a leader or do I want to increase my leadership skills?

If you think that some people are just “born as leaders”, and you consider yourself not one of those lucky ones, rest assured. Only 30 % of leadership performance can be traced back to your genes. This gives you plenty of room to develop your leadership skills. Scholars have looked at leadership development in two ways: Intra-personal development and interpersonal development.

An intrapersonal approach to leadership development focuses on developing individuals as leaders. The goal here is to make a person into a leader.

An interpersonal approach to leadership development focuses on developing leadership capacity in individuals. Here, leadership skills are stimulated in individuals. Leadership development thus goes beyond the individual and includes followers or peers in a self-managed team).

Creating a leader (Intrapersonal leadership development)

The main points from the research on developing leaders are:

  1. It is the quality of past experiences that are important, not the quantity.
  2. Someone who scores high on the agreeableness personality scale is less likely to emerge as a leader.
  3. Different skills are needed at the junior level than for senior leadership positions. Important is to have a mastery orientation to leadership. This means being ok to forgo a high level of performance right away in order to develop a better understanding of what makes a good leader. Learning takes time and you can’t learn and perform at an exceptionally high level at the same time.

While of course experience is important for becoming a leader, it is important to keep in mind that the quality of experience is more important than the quantity of experience. This means that tenure and seniority per se do not mean that someone is a good leader. It is the number of high-quality learning experiences someone has gathered over the years that makes someone a good leader. Additionally, it is not only the experiences that someone has, but also the events someone observes that influences a person’s leadership style (social learning theory). In this way, children, for example, learn to behave like leaders by observing their parents.

Assuming that personality has total control of your leadership style is the wrong mindset. Personality is more or less stable for adults. Of course, it varies across situations, but the changes are not as dramatic as throughout the developmental years of childhood or teenage years.

The Big 5 is the most prominent psychological construct. It lists five major personality factors: conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, openness to experience, and emotional stability. Of those personality factors, conscientiousness and extraversion are good predictors of leadership performance. Regarding leadership development, agreeableness influences if someone emerges as a leader, but in a negative way: The more you seek to agree with others, hence the higher you score on agreeableness, the less likely it is you will emerge as a leader.

There are many studies looking at skills and leadership. Different skills are investigated making it hard to draw a conclusion from the diversity of studied factors. But a couple of main points can be made: For different levels of leadership, different combinations of skills are important. This means that someone who is a good junior leader will not automatically achieve high levels of performance at a senior level. There is also a time lag between learning a skill, for example by doing a leadership training course, and achieving higher levels of leadership performance. The reason for this time lag is that individuals first need to internalize the new skills, create a new or modify their existing “leadership scripts”.

Developing leadership capacities (Interpersonal leadership development)

There has been less research on developing leadership capacities than on developing leaders. Two important research areas are on the social mechanisms (described in the paragraph below) and authentic leadership. The common aspect of both areas of research is that developing leadership capacity requires a trusting and open interaction between leader and followers in order for both parties to gain self-awareness.

The main take away from studies looking at interpersonal factors is that leadership development doesn’t happen in a vacuum but in relation to other people, followers, and superiors. This means that trust and respect need to exists between leaders and followers for someone to develop his or her leadership skills. Another interpersonal factor is social capital, the resources individuals can access thanks to their relationships. Leadership development strengthens this social capital, especially when leaders adopt a transformational approach to leadership and build relationships between employees.

Final note

While re-checking one of the sources my eyes landed on this article:

I guess organizational culture and social network analysis has to wait for another week. The combination of leadership and social network analysis is underexplored in executive education. For those who consider the environment an important factor for developing and demonstrating leadership development, the social network perspective is hugely interesting and insightful. But more about this next week.


  • Avolio, B. J., Walumbwa, F. O., & Weber, T. J. (2009). Leadership: Current theories, research, and future directions. Annual review of psychology, 60, 421-449.
  • Day, D. V., Fleenor, J. W., Atwater, L. E., Sturm, R. E., & McKee, R. A. (2014). Advances in leader and leadership development: A review of 25 years of research and theory. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 63-82.
  • Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Ilies, R., & Gerhardt, M. W. (2002). Personality and leadership: a qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of applied psychology, 87(4), 765.
  • Lee, A., & Carpenter, N. C. (2017). Seeing eye to eye: A meta-analysis of self-other agreement of leadership. The leadership quarterly.

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