3 Keys for Developing Leaders at Every Level

Effective leadership makes the right things happen. Executive teams that make smart investments in developing leaders are rewarded with better revenues, profits and customer satisfaction.1

While many organizations are, as one executive succinctly put it, “frozen in middle,” organizations that achieve strong performance ensure that leaders at every level understand strategic priorities, are accountable for the success of the teams on which they work, and participate in development that builds strategically important business and leadership disciplines.2

Today, successful executives are seeing that their leadership teams achieve success amid the disruption that confronts their businesses and organizations.3 In these high-performing organizations, leaders implement new ways of conceptualizing and organizing work and strengthen the critical combination of agility and resilience needed to negotiate today’s disruptive business environment.

How do executives help their leaders succeed? Three Keys for Developing Leaders at Every Level

Developing leaders at every level requires that we recognize three leadership problems and address them effectively.

Problem 1. Leaders are not certain about the high impact leadership behaviors that are linked to business outcomes.

 In research completed for the Managing at the Leading Edge, we surveyed approximately 1,200 first, middle and senior level leaders and related them to direct report ratings of effectiveness. In the table below, the reader will find a sample of 4 (out of 20) behaviors most associated with effectiveness presented on a percentile basis.

Sample of High Impact Leadership Behaviors

Ratings of Effectiveness




Character Consistent in words and action




Models accountability




Competence Gets others to see stubborn problems in new ways




Adapts plans to build commitment




 We see quite a range in use of these behaviors as experienced by direct reports, ratings that research indicates have the strongest relations with objective measures of performance. We also analyzed differences between high-performing organizations and those that had not yet achieved this distinction.

Sample of High Impact Leadership Behaviors

Ratings from Organizations not yet achieving

High Performance

Ratings from High Performance


Character Consistent in words and action



Models accountability



Competence Gets others to see stubborn problems in new ways



Adapts plans to build commitment



Once again, we see significant differences. This data indicates that organizations vary in the culture of leadership.

The problem for us to solve is that leaders recognize the importance of these behaviors. I have asked leaders to generate such a list and I’ve have found that most will generate a one that includes many of the behaviors featured above. If most leaders can generate a pretty good list, then why are these results above not different?

We believe that two gaps that limit the use of high-impact leadership behaviors: 1) the Know-Do gap and 2) the Impact gap.

Know-Do Gap. As noted earlier many leaders can tell you what good leadership is. The challenge is that many of us do not do what we know we need to do. We are often distracted away from good leadership by the pressure of getting our immediate tasks accomplished. To some extent, that’s natural. Recent brain science reveals that the part of the brain responsible for solving analytical problems often pushes out the wiring that supports emotionally intelligent behavior.4 Working past this impulse takes commitment and practice.

Impact Gap. People often think that they are doing something effectively—but this behavior often comes across differently to those who work with them. When executive coaches debrief 360 surveys*, it is not uncommon for example to see the following: the subject of the survey, a leader, gives themselves higher self-ratings on certain behaviors than the other respondents to the survey, that is, higher than the leader’s boss, peers and direct reports. People have blind spots that limit their ability to adapt certain behavior to situational demands.

Solution 1. Close two types of performance gaps: 1) know-do gap and 2) impact gap.

We can close these critical gaps by giving people information about their use of these high-impact behaviors.

  1. Leaders can be invited and taught how to ask people they work about the use of target behaviors. For instance, “Am I consistent in the things I say and do?” or “What could I do differently in the future to help my people to do this more effectively?” Micro surveys and interviews can also be conducted and leaders can use these insights to uncover gaps. With insight about gaps, most people will strive to close them. Think of the weight scale in the bathroom. Health experts invite us to measure ourselves regularly. With these measures, we can evaluate whether we are doing what we need to do to achieve our goals for a healthy lifestyle.
  2. Impact gaps. Helping people learn about impact gaps and then working on them is key. We all have blind spots. Having the support of a partner who is enrolled to help me be accountable to a plan for change can be a great help. Having access to an executive coach is also a powerful impact gap-closing strategy.

Problem 2: The distance between learning and opportunity to do it better is too great.

People often receive conventional leadership training. Some research indicates that transfer of learning from conventional training–in other words, the degree with which people actually apply leadership lessons on the job—can be as low as 10 percent. High-impact development, by contrast, can achieve meaningful improvements in performance as high as .40 of a standard deviation increase in effectiveness.5

Solution 2: Set expectations that people learn and do at the same time. Dissolve the boundary that separates development from achieving mission-critical priorities. A recent survey conducted with a group of 300 senior leaders indicated that learning while getting important work done is a top development priority. Learning while doing is the best teacher—provided, of course, that people are prepared for these experiences are helped to learn from them. Experience without critical reflection, experimentation and accountability partners (internal or external coaches) driven by a spirit of continuous improvement produces recurring patterns of the same sub-optimum performance.

To make this idea a reality, hold your HR team and senior business leaders to making “learning while doing” happen. The temptation many executives face is to avoid the conversation, or not make it a priority. Pulling across the boundaries is key to successful change leadership including how we focus our organizations on building better leaders.

Problem 3: In most organizations, change management accountabilities are not well defined and are poorly synchronized.

Most organizations do not have an effective change management approach6 even though leading change and getting others to change is a perhaps the most important thing a leader does.

Solution 3: Ensure that each level of leader knows what change management/leadership accountabilities they have and that they perform them well. It is startling to learn clarity about change is missing and that accountability for change management is generally lacking. In high-performing organizations7, executives are devoting attention to changing how their organizations operate. Being clear about who is accountable for what and enforcing this accountability sets vital context for evaluating everyone’s game in a way that produces success.


We began with the claim that leadership matters. The evidence suggests that leadership matters and that executive teams that make effective leadership development happen experience positive business and engagement results. We focused on three keys for developing leaders at any level. Making smart investments “in sharpening the saw” as management guru Stephen Covey said, will make the trees come down faster.

*360 surveys ask a participant to give self-ratings of their behavior. Bosses, peers and direct reports also complete the survey. Survey reports show self-ratings in other- ratings and enable the participant to see differences in ratings.


  1. Cushard, B. (2017, March 7). Corporate leadership development programs: Level up employee performance. Spark [blog]. Retrieved from http://www.adp.com/spark/articles/corporate-leadership-development-programs-level-up-employee-performance-9-239
  2. Mckinsey (2015) Survey: Building capabilities for performance.
  3. Rose, T. (2017). Managing at the Leading Edge. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  4. Jack, A, Dawson, A, Begany, K, Barry, K, Coccia, A., Snyder, A, (2013). fMRI reveal reciprocal inhibition between social and physical cognition domains, Neuroimage, 66, p 385-401.
  5. Cherniss, G., Coleman, D., Emmerling, R., Cowan, K., & Adler, M. (1998). Bringing emotional intelligence to the work place. A technical report issued by the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence.
  6. Huy, Q. Five reasons most companies fail at strategy execution. Insead.edu blog, January, 4, 2016.
  7. How the World’s Most Admired Companies are Preparing for the Future. Fortune.com/2016/02/19/worlds-most-admired-companies-preparing-future