Leadership Development: Is It as Hard as It Looks?

19by Alice Waagen, PhD
Workforce Learning
Photo by akeg, www.flickr.com

This article was published in the September 2000 issue of InPractice, an ASTD publication.

Some of the most damning words a harried executive can level at a leadership development program are: “It wasn’t relevant. It didn’t teach me what I need to know to make my business succeed.” Those of us who develop and deliver leadership programs have struggled for years to try to make this connection between theoretical concepts and real-world applications.

One way to make executive programs more relevant is to link the learning program to the business via its core values. Jack Welch, legendary CEO of General Electric, pioneered this approach by introducing 360-degree leadership feedback into his leadership programs.

In a nutshell, this means a manager gets feedback from the boss, peers and subordinates — providing an accurate, balanced picture of how the rest of the organization perceives a manager’s values and behaviors. The premise behind multi-rater feedback is to measure and reward HOW we do business as well as WHAT we accomplish.

How leaders lead

The question of how leaders should lead — rather than what should they accomplish — becomes part of the fundamental values and goals for the organization. Core values, leadership principles or management standards often are stated in behavioral terms, such as:

  • Leading with integrity
  • Valuing customers
  • Creating a climate of trust
  • Communicating vision and purpose


This approach to leadership development works best when well-crafted core values are created from the company’s vision statement or long-term strategy. In other words, these core values can be demonstrated by management behaviors which are essential to achieve the future goals of the company.

How do we link leadership development programs to core values?

Follow this step-by-step process:

1. Translate the core values into competencies. If not already written in behavioral terms, core values have to be translated into behavioral statements.

This can be a simple process of using a good wordsmith to rewrite them; a leadership team also can make the transformation.

Some example translations include:

  • Value: Process Management / Behavior: Strive for Continuous Improvement
  • Value: Customer Focus / Behavior: Meet and Exceed Customer Needs
  • Value: Ethical Behavior / Behavior: Show Respect for One Another


2. Design method to assess current behaviors. Use a survey to provide leaders with feedback on how their behavior is perceived. The survey questions must be behavioral statements that reflect the core competencies.

Using the examples above, survey statements might be:

  • Strives to reduce work errors and inefficiencies
  • Establishes effective relationships with customers
  • Demonstrates high standards of ethical conduct


The traditional 360-degree survey is administered to the circle around the leaders: his or her boss, peers, direct reports. This traditional approach can be modified to include any relationships that are significant to the business, such as matrix management, customers or vendors. The outcome of the survey is feedback to the person being rated on how well they are demonstrating these behaviors in their daily actions.

There are many different survey packages on the market for developing and administering 360-degree surveys. They range considerably in price and features. Once you have determined the number of the people who will participate in the survey and the number and type of questions you need to ask, as well as any reporting requirements, you can then compare these packages to find the one that best meets your needs.

3. Tabulate the survey results. The individual leader’s feedback is used to coach each leader on his or her strengths and developmental opportunities. Development programs can then be provided to target their individual needs, directly linked to those behaviors that have been determined to be critical for business success.

By basing the design and delivery of leadership programs on quantitative data about perceived behavioral shortfalls, the resulting programs can bridge the gap between theory and practice and provide the learning so many of our leaders need to help reach their business goals.