What is leadership development & do you need it?

Effective leadership development will improve business results, help create more rewarding relationships and foster a more vital and efficient work culture.

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You’ve likely been hearing the term ‘leadership development’ for decades now; yet you may still only have a vague sense of what it means and aren’t quite sure if you and your company need development… and if you do, where do you start? 

Allow us to clear things up so you can make better informed decisions for you, your staff and the future of your company. 

What is leadership development?

Leadership development is any activity, program, initiative or undertaking that helps to improve one’s skills and confidence while leading others and your company as a whole. 

Effective leadership development will improve business results, help create more rewarding relationships and foster a more vital and efficient work culture. Whether great or poor, your leadership abilities have a profound impact felt companywide.

CEOs, business owners and top executives are obvious candidates for leadership development, but really, anyone who is in the position of managing people or business affairs can put their enhanced skill sets to good use. 

Key leadership development skills

Examples of leadership development may include CEO coaching (also called executive mentoring), business-focused peer advisory groups, structured training programs offered through business schools or organizations, in-company initiatives implemented by your human resources team, and events focused on developing a specific skill set such as creating a “winner’s mindset.” 

Examples of key skills for leadership development include:

Why is leadership development important to the success of your company? 

Not only does strong, effective leadership development give individuals the hard and soft skills they need to perform at a higher level, but it also gives them a deeper sense of satisfaction and appreciation for the company’s investment in them. 

By developing your own leadership skills — and encouraging your top managers to do the same — you will undoubtedly create a more positive culture; remove obstacles that have hampered growth, innovation and productivity; and elevate your company and, ultimately, your bottom-line results.

Developing leadership skills 

We all can only go so far on our own. At some point, even the most successful entrepreneurs seek outside perspectives to help elevate their skills so they can take their companies to the next level. Even Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs used leadership coaches.

But how do you know where to start? 

Here are some ways to develop as a leader to get the wheels turning: 

1. Know your leadership style 

Self-knowledge serves you well in business and in life. It will also help you choose what kind of leadership development training and activities will complement your natural style.

Are you a visionary like Elon Musk?

A servant leader like Abraham Lincoln? 

Or more of a charismatic coach like Sheryl Sandberg? 

Vistage has identified 4 key leadership styles. Do you see yourself in any of these?

For the People 

Everyone knows you’re in charge and you thrive on your relationships with your staff. You know how to work results from the bottom up— but sometimes you are too popular for your own good.

You have a tendency to get too involved, which can make you feel overwhelmed or stuck in the weeds. 

Cherished Conductor

You came up through the ranks and have a true depth of talent and hands-on experience. You’re respected and rarely challenged— which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

You find all the decisions are all on you all of the time. You often feel isolated at the top and long for a confidential sounding board of trusted peers. 

Peak Performer

You’re fast, you’re focused and you’re ready to advance your business. Every day is an opportunity to get ahead of the curve. You desire for speedy decisions, however, can sometimes backfire. 

Silent Struggler

You’re a high achiever with a solid track record, yet you always have this nagging feeling that you need to do more, be more, learn more. While you are highly selective about who you confide in, you know that you can benefit from the input of others. If only you could find the right people to trust with your biggest dreams. 

Of course, most people don’t fit easily in one category, yet there is wisdom in knowing your core persona as a leader and leveraging it. 

Having this level of self-knowledge can help you select leadership development training and activities that will yield more satisfying results. 

2. Improve your communication 

If there is one leadership skill to master, communication is it. Every leader can stand to be a better communicator. How clearly you communicate; how often you reach out; the content and inclusiveness of your messaging — it all has an impact. 

As your organization’s leader, you set the tone, you chart the course and you set the vision. Even if you excel in many aspects of leadership, you will faulter if you cannot effectively communicate your vision, the company’s values and mission and your intentions to your staff. 

The good news is that an abundance of resources, courses and people are available to help you develop this skill set. You may also want to enlist an executive coach or mentor to focus specifically on this critical leadership area. 

3. Learn how to build strong teams

Having raw talent at your company can no doubt help you achieve specific goals but having teams that work well together can help you achieve great things. 

What personalities create music together while others create… nails on a chalkboard? The fine art of people placement is an often overlooked skill set, but it’s well worth your time to master it.

Understanding personality dynamics and how different types work together cannot only help you bring your company to a higher level of success, it can make working there a whole lot more fun and enjoyable. 

When looking for leadership development opportunities to develop a stronger team, look for programs that focus on hiring talent, team building exercises and exploring employee personality types.  

5. Take an online leadership course

Vistage member Ronn Cort, President and COO of Kydex, a Thermoplastic manufacturer, was hoping to better ground himself in the high-level strategy he’d missed when he had jumped from high school into the workforce; so he enrolled in the Vistage-Stanford Executive Leadership Program, one of many kinds of programs designed to help leaders like Cort accelerate their business growth and become better, more well-rounded leaders. 

Cort says, “A key takeaway from the program was the PARC framework, which divides an organization into people, architecture, routines and culture. This made it possible to contextualize a given challenge, and to see how challenges were interrelated.”

One of the biggest obstacles Cort identified was related to his company’s architecture. He saw the need to not just rework its organizational chart, but to actually rearrange its physical offices.

“I moved teams based on the types of innovation that we were pursuing. I grouped those focused on iterative innovation and those focused on radical innovation, as these two types of innovation require different styles of collaboration, and to an extent different cultures.”

Cort also identified cultural issues that were inhibiting risk-taking, particularly among his engineers. “They only wanted to share what was working. But when testing new ideas, it’s necessary to fail fast and fail cheap. So, we started to have pizza parties to celebrate spectacular failures,” he says.

Do your research on what kinds of courses and training is available online. It can be as intense and as time-consuming as getting an MBA or as easy as taking weekend crash training to sharpen your skills in a particular area — with everything in between. 

6. Hire a mentor (CEO executive coach)

Many business leaders and CEOs turn to business coaching for more customized leadership development.

Top reasons why you may want to use an executive coach  include: 

You are overwhelmed and in the weeds

An executive coach can help you prioritize your work, stay focused and put a smart, well planned strategy in place that is your daily guide. 

Your business coach will also help you set boundaries when it comes to interruptions and will keep you accountable for achieving manageable, strategic goals each month that will keep you out of the weeds and on point.

You feel ‘lonely at the top’

The weight of making all of the decisions all of the time can take its toll. A business coach can be your partner and collaborator. He or she can give you honest, unbiased input that helps you see your options more clearly and objectively.

Having a coach also helps relieve the pressure of having to know it all. Most coaches have years of business experience and wisdom to draw from, so you can benefit from mistakes they’ve made along the way.

The very idea of having an accomplished business leader available to lean into is deeply satisfying for most CEOs. 

You are a high achiever wanting to break all records

An executive coach will keep your eyes on the prize by helping you develop rock-solid, pressure-tested strategies for excelling. Your coach will also guide you to develop winning habits, provide you with thought provoking resources and hold you accountable for your goals and vision.

A knowledgeable coach can keep you ahead of the curves and surpassing the competition every step of the way. 

You’re a new CEO or want to turn around a company 

An accomplished executive coach has been where you’re standing now and can offer significant support, insight and wisdom. Your coach can connect you with the people and resources you can draw from to make better, more informed decisions every step of the way.

Your coach is a confidant and guide, supporting you along your leadership journey so you have the confidence to move your business forward. 

7. Join a CEO peer advisory group

CEOs, business owners and high-level executives have a lot of people offering advice — from their board of directors to spouses. Others have key colleagues or even a mentor with whom they can troubleshoot … but very few business leaders have a consistent, structured forum for unbiased feedback.

Very few have a confidential environment to work out concerns and plans, challenges and opportunities. They want guidance they can trust from people they respect; that is the great advantage of being part of a confidential group of CEOs and business owners— high achievers just like you.

Everyone is committed to helping each other succeed. Learn what makes these CEO peer advisory groups so successful and why 45,000 leaders around the world are Vistage members. 

Developing courage in leadership 

In addition to learning skill sets to become a better leader, there is one key quality worth developing: Courage. 

Courageous leaders are not afraid to show their vulnerability or own up to their mistakes. They encourage creativity and innovation. They welcome diverse points of view — even if those viewpoints contradict their own.

They foster a free exchange of ideas and promote smart risk-taking. They lead by example and create a positive, transparent work culture, setting the stage for progress and achievement throughout the company. 

As we learned from the lion in the Wizard of Oz, courage isn’t just something you’re born with. Like a muscle, courage just needs to be awakened, acknowledged and exercised. And when you do step into your most courageous self, you elevate everyone around you. 

What to expect from a leadership development program 

“No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it.” — Andrew Carnegie

Some are born to lead… but even so, much like an athlete or musician, without the proper training, they will never realize their potential. 

A skilled leader is able to motivate a group of people to act in an effective way to achieve a common goal. 

As a CEO that means directing your entire staff to fulfill the company’s mission, vision and strategy. While doing so, problems can arise at any time that you never planned for. 

Take the coronavirus for example; many businesses were forced to pivot on a dime. Some had to immediately change their entire model.  Effective leaders are able to respond quickly, efficiently and decisively to keep everyone on course through all kinds of challenges and obstacles. 

Ineffective leadership, however, is like a wrecking ball. Your employees become disengaged, top talent leaves the company, productivity plummets, customers complain, revenue declines and no one enjoys coming to work anymore, least of all you. 

It’s hard to argue, then, that one of the best investments you can make is in your own leadership development and that of your staff. 

According to a Global Coaching Client Study by ICF, of the companies they studied that went through leadership training (and tracked the results): 

 19% had an ROI of at least 50 times (5000%) the initial investment, and 

 28% saw a return of 10 to 49 times the investment

According to the ICF, the median company return was 700% — meaning that a company can expect a return of about seven times the initial investment!

Benefits for your company

Even if you’re a great leader, you can be better. It’s a matter of carving time out of your schedule to make it a priority. 

Here are the benefits you stand to gain from investing in a leadership development program:

  1. Better, more confident decision-making
  2. More effectively able to manage change
  3. Stronger teams that work well together
  4. Improved corporate culture
  5. Increased employee engagement
  6. Better able to manage risk
  7. Ability to respond to change more quickly and effectively
  8. Better prepared and trained employees and future leaders
  9. Increased productivity
  10. Alignment with company mission and purpose

Benefits for yourself

In addition to getting better results for your company, leadership development can also help you enjoy more rewarding results for yourself on a personal level.

Benefits for yourself include:

  1. Optimizing your natural leadership style
  2. Clarifying your vision and goals 
  3. Increased self-empowerment and confidence
  4. Better communication skills (in professional and personal settings)
  5. Able to more powerfully influence, persuade and motivate people
  6. Increased emotional intelligence (which helps you to better understand and relate to people)
  7. Helping you to avoid mistakes

Different types of leadership development and training programs 

An internet search for leadership development programs can leave you overwhelmed. Where do you even begin? Consider the different types of leadership development programs for employees at all levels. They include:  

In-house training

This is generally the go-to type of training when the information imparted is particular to your company alone. This top-down approach allows CEOs and business owners to customize training for a specific role, company department and/or person. 

It generally involves a manager or supervisor carving time out of their schedules to get a particular staff member up to speed on a skill set or information base. While the hard cost might be minimal, the time commitment could be significant. 

You also have to consider that some leaders are better teachers than others. 

Your managers may benefit from training with multiple people, or bringing in someone from the onsite.

Onsite executive leadership programs

Vistage Inside, for example, is a specialized program offered by the world’s largest executive coaching and peer advisory organizations. It provides on-site executive development programs designed for the entire senior leadership team.

The program combines dynamic group meetings, speaker workshops and individual mentorship. Through experiential learning, participants strengthen their leadership abilities, improve collaboration and put their company on course for greater success. 

One participant, Margaret H. Frogge, Senior VP for Corporate Strategy Riverside Medical Center, says “Vistage Inside provides a balanced scorecard of executive development.

It brings what you can’t get in any other type of leadership development program. The development of the leader as a ‘total person’ is Vistage Inside’s unique differentiator.”

Leadership executive training online

Today you can find almost any kind of program you’re looking for online. Especially since the pandemic took hold, companies have developed impressive offerings for leadership learning and personal growth, including master classes, workshops and live online events. 

Online courses can become the new norm at your company — or an excellent way to supplement traditional onsite training. Overall it is a comparatively inexpensive option allowing you to reach many staff members in a short time. 

Because team member interaction is generally lacking with these programs, you may want to supplement it with onsite team building (see below). 

Live seminars and workshops

Sometimes nothing beats in-person events including seminars, training and workshops (when a pandemic isn’t spreading across the globe, of course). There’s a dynamic created when people get together to learn that can’t always be captured through online events.

Plus, the presence of a consummate professional and live Q&As are hard to compete with. 

Live events tend to leave a more lasting impression and create opportunities for networking with other high achieving professionals. Besides, you and your leadership team are worth the investment.


Like executive mentorship mentioned earlier, hiring a consultant is a smart way to gain immediate insight into blind spots and problems while also receiving on-the-spot solutions. 

A professional leadership consultant can actually identify the weak spots, the strengths and the kind of training and development your executive leadership team needs. The consultant can then create or advise on customized training sessions. 

While this can be expensive, it is often highly effective and thorough. It all depends, of course, on the quality of the consultant you choose. Consulting especially pays off if you have leadership concerns that you’d like addressed by an impartial third party, rather than someone from your own staff. 

Formal academic programs and degrees

Business schools offer leadership and management training in a formal setting with textbooks, tests and, if you stick with them, graduate degrees.

This a huge time and money investment, but for some business leaders it fulfills a deep need for a more comprehensive and traditional business education. If you enroll with an excellent school you will get unparalleled working knowledge, too.

Professors are often accomplished leaders themselves or experts in their field, while classes are engaging and stimulating. Because you have to put so much skin in the game, you are likely highly invested in getting as much out of the experience as possible.

For many leaders, having a degree provides an added feeling of confidence and pride. 

Team Building Activities

From improving communication, trust, morale and productivity, team building has flourished in recent years as the go-to activity for leadership development and beyond.

These are fun, challenging and highly engaging exercises that often force participants to get out of their comfort zones. The one thing they all have in common is that they are memorable. They can range from walking over hot coals and completing an escape room together — to falling backwards off a ladder into the waiting arms of your colleagues or playing tug of war against the Finance Department over a mud pit for bragging rights. Like we said, they are memorable!

What does any of this have to do with leadership or strengthening a team?


In a fun setting, with no major company consequence at stake, natural allies are made, leadership skills rise to the top and friendships are formed and cemented. Many companies include such activities in their employee development days. 

Team building is also an excellent way to establish trust, resolve conflicts and work together. They also serve as an opportunity for managers get to know their staff members better, helping them improve their relationships on a personal level and professional level. Plus, you know what they say about the team that laughs together… 

The Vistage approach to leadership development training

As the world’s largest executive coaching and CEO peer advisory organization in the world, Vistage offers a comprehensive approach to leadership development. 

For more than 60 years, the company has worked with 100,000+ CEOs, owners and top executives while learning and refining its approach to business success and faster growth.

The Vistage platform features three core elements:

  1. Valuable perspectives from a trusted group of peers, 
  2.  Professional guidance from an accomplished business leader (Chair) 
  3.  Deep insights from subject matter experts.

It’s a formula that has helped its CEO member companies grow 2.2x faster than non-member companies of similar size.

Today, Vistage helps 45,000 business leaders around the world make better decisions, develop their leadership teams and get better results for their companies. 

How leadership development training works

1. It starts with a peer advisory group

At the heart of the Vistage experience is the confidential peer advisory group. Once a month, business leaders meet to work through challenges and opportunities with 12-16 high-caliber executives from non-competing organizations.

These peers help each other vet solutions in ways their subordinates cannot because they face the same issues.

2. A certified executive coach facilitates the peer advisory group 

Group members have access to their own executive mentor (called a Vistage Chair). Chairs guide group discussions using a proven, proprietary framework for processing issues and keeping discussions focused and productive.

3. Thought leaders keep members ahead of the curves 

Vistage members have access to world-class speakers at workshops, regional events and boot camps. These thought leaders spark innovative approaches to optimize their businesses and to inspire new ideas for personal development.

4. World-class research prompts action

Vistage Research collaborates with the top minds in business to offer relevant, actionable information for small and midsize businesses. The latest data, reports and analyses help leaders prepare their organization for the future.

5. A global network supports

Vistage members can connect with business leaders around the world for real-time advice, referrals and troubleshooting through 22 online networks based on industry or special interests. 

6. Events motivate, inform and inspire 

Business leaders come together for large-scale and intimate events to access the experience, wisdom, and insights of their business peers and though leaders, also offering opportunities to grow their network.

Leadership development programs

Vistage offers six purpose-built programs for every level of leadership. Each is focused on driving results and all offer 24/7 access to a global community of business leaders who face similar challenges, issues and opportunities.

Featured programs include those for CEOs; small and midsize business owners; key executives; emerging leaders; senior leadership; and trusted advisors such as professionals who counsel CEOs in law, finance, public relations, etc. 

Leadership development coaches

Vistage Chairs are an elite group of accomplished business leaders with diverse backgrounds and specific training on a proven leadership method. They 

facilitate confidential CEO peer advisory groups of about a dozen community leaders and executives from non-competing industries. Chairs follow a proven, time-tested model for helping business leaders make better decisions that yield better results.

Chairs also hold private, one-to-one meetings with each of their members. This is an opportunity for members to take a deeper dive into their unique challenges and opportunities. Chairs also share world class resources with members and provide a consistent source of support and unbiased feedback.


Vistage Chairs help business leaders and CEOs by:

  1. Asking the difficult questions to motivate high-impact decisions
  2. Framing issues to inspire robust discussions and critical thinking
  3. Acting as an agent of influence to help members push their businesses forward
  4. Facilitating collaboration to help members map out plans of action

Leadership development group experience

Each month thousands of CEOs and business owners across the U.S. and around the world, block off their calendars, leave their offices and step out of their daily activities.

They spend the day with 12-16 respected business peers from non-competing industries in a work session known as the Vistage peer advisory group meeting.

Within this confidential meeting these business leaders put their most important decisions and greatest challenges on the table. They troubleshoot problems, vet ideas and pressure-test assumptions. They also help identify each other’s blind spots. 

Here’s how it works: 

1. Presenting the issue

Prior to the meeting, the Chair will have gathered input from the members on which issues and challenges they’d like to “process.” Perhaps a CEO is considering letting go of a high-level manager who has been underperforming; maybe a business owner wants to expand operations in Asia but doesn’t know what’s involved; perhaps a top executive needs to attract top talent but hasn’t had luck finding the right people.  

2. Using a structured framework for discussion

The Chair will put one of the issues up for group discussion and guide members in using a proprietary method called ‘issue processing’ to keep the conversation focused and productive. This structured framework, leads to productive, efficient conversations and actionable next steps. 

3. Asking clarifying questions

The member will articulate the issue he or she wants to addressed and the Chair will ask the group members for “clarifying questions.” These questions will help them have a deeper understanding of the issue, and also often prompt the think it through more deeply or to gain another perspective. 

In the case of an underperforming manager, members might ask:

What is he costing the company in terms of dollars and lost productivity? How long has he been with the company and have you addressed the problem with him yet? What do his subordinates and colleagues think of him and his performance? Does he add or detract from the company culture? Is leadership development training an option for him?

4. Exploring solutions

Everyone’s heads and hearts are fully engaged in the process and, with each question explored, members gain more clarity and awareness of the different solutions available.

On a huge white board, the Chair writes down all of the responses and suggestions from group members. The Chair will then ask the presenting member to consider the range of insights and options shared. 

5. Committing to an action plan

The Chair will then ask the presenting member to commit to the next step, along with a deadline. The group will hold the member accountable at the next meeting. 

Many member issues may be processed during a single meeting and a subject matter expert may be scheduled to speak on a relevant topic of high interest to group members. That may include cultivating a more positive workplace culture, long-term strategic planning based, cyber security, etc. 

While the group meeting experience is at the very heart of Vistage’s leadership development success, it’s only one part of the company’s comprehensive formula.

The Vistage approach also includes one-to-one meetings with a Vistage Chair (executive coach), world class resources, guest speakers, business events; and access to a 24/7 global network made up of other business leaders. 

Leadership development quotes and inspiration

“Outstanding leaders go out of the way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” – Sam Walton, founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club

“True leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed… Leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection.” – Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook

“One of the most important things for any leader is to never let anyone else define who you are. And you define who you are. I never think of myself as being a woman CEO of this company. I think of myself as a steward of a great institution.” – Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” – Warren Buffett, investor

“What you do has far greater impact than what you say.” – Stephen Covey, author and educator

“Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.” – Dale Carnegie, author and motivational speaker

“Leadership is something you earn, something you’re chosen for. You can’t come in yelling, ‘I’m your leader!’ If it happens, it’s because the other guys respect you.” – Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback

“Ninety percent of leadership is the ability to communicate something people want.” – Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Senator

“An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” – Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric

“Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal.” – Walt Disney, founder of Disney

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” – Peter F. Drucker, author and educator

Leadership development books

The key to great leadership is excellent communication. So, it is little wonder that the best leadership books are concise, engaging and easy to follow.

From irreverent sendups of common failures to painstaking dissections of the human condition, the following leadership books offer actionable insights to help helm a company, or a leadership team, to success. 

Vistage CEO members and executive coaches have recommended many titles to their peers for deeper insights, strategies and inspiration to tote along the challenging and rewarding leadership journey.