Is it “Leader” Development or “Leadership” Development?


There has been a great deal of discussion regarding the difference between “leader” and “leadership” development. The former focuses on the individual leader and has been criticised by Gemmill and Oakley (1992) as an “alienating social myth” that creates a learned “helplessness” in those known as “followers”.  The latter therefore takes into consideration the entire ecosystem or situation in which the leader operates. Burgoyne, Boydell and Pedler (2004) for instance proposes three constituents of leadership situation to be:

  • Challenges – the critical tasks, problems and issues requiring actions
  • Context – the local situation in which the challenges arise and the environmental and on-site conditions in which actions and learning take place;
  • Characteristics – the qualities, abilities, skills and competencies of all the people in the situation (Steward 2009)

Based on my observations, most of the leadership development programs out there are really more “leader” development programs. These programs often offer cookie-cutter contents, targeting the development of individual leaders,  often without taking the entire situation into consideration. Questions arise from these leadership development programs therefore include:

  • How are these skills taught relevant to each of the individuals’ work challenges?
  • How are the learning conditions or processes best suited for the individuals taking into consideration their working environment and on-site situations?
  • How do they apply the knowledge acquired given the unique characteristics of their followers? 

There are programs out there that attempts to answer these questions using a mix of different approaches such as individual needs analysis, one-on-one coaching, action learning, participation in communities of practice etc. Some offers lip-service to the idea of holistic leadership development whereas there are some which genuinely seeks to address issues of leadership in a greater context. The next time you come across a leadership development program ask yourself, is this “leader” development or “leadership” development?



Boydell, T., Burgoyne, J., & Pedler, M. (2004). Suggested development. People Management, 10(4), 32-34.
Gemmill, G., & Oakley, J. (1992). Leadership: an alienating social myth?. Human Relations, 45(2), 113-129.
Stewart, J. A. (2009). Evaluation of an action learning programme for leadership development of SME leaders in the UK. Action Learning: Research and Practice, 6(2), 131-148.

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