Annual Leadership Development Survey: Developing the Hearts and Minds of Leaders

Best practices of high-performing leadership development organizations.

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Organizations with high-performing leadership development capabilities do a number of things differently than lower-performing organizations do, but key among them is paying greater attention to developing the character of their leaders.

In this year’s 2020 Annual Leadership Development Survey Report for Training magazine, we wanted to take the opportunity to highlight the value and importance of developing the heart of the leader, as well as other issues that differentiate high-performing organizations from others, particularly during these challenging times caused by the Coronavirus. The results can provide a roadmap for organizations wanting to gain a greater cultural and financial return on their leadership development investments.

Much is studied and written about leadership style and competencies, but little addresses leadership character. Yet character is a central element of leadership success. Research on failures of leadership frequently point to issues of character as a central theme (“Leadership Character and Corporate Governance,” J. Gandz, M. Crossan, G. Seijts, and M. Reno, The Directors Journal, Institute of Corporate Directors, 2013). For this reason, we added a set of questions to this year’s survey to understand how organizations develop the character of their leaders. These questions helped illuminate the importance of leadership character to organizational performance and what organizations are doing to effectively develop the character of their leaders.


For the fourth year, Training magazine and Wilson Learning Worldwide teamed up to conduct a survey focused on what organizations are doing to create effective leaders. More than 530 Learning and Development (L&D) professionals responded to the 2020 Leadership Development survey. There were several trends worth examining when comparing the results from the last three years to today.


Training and development spending per employee had shown a steady increase from 2017 to 2019 but dipped in 2020. Respondents spent $147 per employee, on average, on training in 2020. This was 24 percent lower than the peak of $194 per employee in 2018.

This was intensified relative to leadership development. Graph 1 shows the percentage of the total training budget spent on leadership development. There was an increase in the percentage of organizations spending less than 10 percent of their budget on leadership development, as well as a decrease in the percentage spending 40 percent or more.


Most of the 24 learning methods used for leadership development did not change meaningfully from 2017 to 2020, with seven interesting exceptions, shown in Graph 2. Four learning methods showed a significant decrease in use: job rotation assignments, structured on-the-job training, 360-degree feedback tools, and use of college programs. All four have shown a steady decline throughout the four years of the survey.

What replaced these methods? Results indicate that three methods showed the greatest increase in usage: microlearning, learning libraries, and simulations/roleplays. Simulations/role-plays showed the greatest increase in usage; 71 percent of organizations used them in 2017, and now more than 85 percent do.

The shift in methods suggests a move toward less structured leadership development approaches. Methods such as college programs or job rotations require more planning and structure, whereas learning libraries and microlearning are geared to more self-directed learning.

However, this shift seems unrelated to the effectiveness of the learning method. Learning methods with the greatest increase in usage are also among the lowest rated for their effectiveness. Only 20 percent of respondents using learning libraries and only 32 percent using microlearning indicated they were effective; both were among the lowest rated for their effectiveness. Contrast that with structured on-the-job training, which was rated by 65 percent of respondents as being effective or highly effective. The one exception was simulations/role-plays, which showed the greatest increase in usage and was also one of the highest rated for effectiveness, with 63 percent indicating they are effective as leadership learning methods.


Organizations were asked to identify their top five priority leadership skills. Graph 3 shows there was little change from last year on the rank order of priority skills. Coaching and communication skills have remained the top two priority skills in every year of the survey. Two other skills—emotional intelligence and performance management—have been in the top four for the last two years.


Sixty-two percent of participants indicated they offer some leadership character development, either as part of their leadership skills program (44 percent) or as a program focused specifically on leadership character (18 percent). It was also clear what elements of character were most critical. Graph 4 shows the results when we asked participants to indicate the top five character elements important to their organization. More than 50 percent indicated integrity/ ethics and empowerment of others were the two most critical character elements.

Interestingly, three of the top four elements (empowering others, nurturing others’ growth, and empathy/compassion) all address how leaders treat other people. Clearly, a critical element of leadership character development is the degree to which leaders show concern for the growth and fulfillment of their employees, as well as the integrity of their own actions and decisions.


Benchmarks for performance are useful guides for making improvements. We examine this by identifying outcomes that define leadership effectiveness, and then rank organizations from high performing to lower performing. To measure performance, we focused on six measures of the impact of leadership development that most experts agree provide a good indication of the performance of leadership development.

1. Leadership is a source of competitive advantage: Do senior executives acknowledge the importance of leadership development to the organization’s success?

2. Best-in-class leaders: Are other companies trying to recruit their leaders away?

3. Attracting high potentials: Does the organization’s approach to leadership attract high-potential leaders from other organizations?

4. No leadership gaps: Does the organization have significant gaps in leadership capacity?

5. Sufficient resources: Do organizations have the necessary resources to effectively develop their leaders?

6. Sufficient leadership bench strength: How satisfied is the company with its ability to replace departing leaders?

We combined these six measures into one indicator of effectiveness, and then divided the organizations into three groups: High Performance, Moderate Performance, and Low Performance.


Most striking is the difference between highly effective organizations and less effective organizations on the importance of character development. Graph 5 shows how high-, moderate-, and low-performing organizations differ in providing leadership character development. When asked if they have a program that addresses leadership character, 84 percent of high-performing organizations indicated they did, but this was true for only 31 percent of low-performing organizations. Given the importance of character development for today’s leaders, this difference is striking.

We also asked participants to describe what approaches they take to develop character in their leaders. What struck us first was the level of interest and diversity of their responses. More than 75 percent of participants provided descriptions of how they develop character. By far, the most common response was to use a combination of mentoring, real-life scenarios, and 360-degree feedback on their leadership character. This is best summarized by one participant’s response:

“We begin with personal assessments that provide individualized feedback. We follow this with case studies and discussion about how to respond to different situations, processing what responses are best and why. We then link each leader with a mentor to provide real-life feedback on how to make ethical decisions.”

Of course, not everyone feels that same way about development of character. Among those who do not offer leadership character development, this participant explained:

“Character cannot be developed; it is something one possesses and reveals itself in a leadership role. Ultimately, this will determine their success as a leader.”

Examining the relationship between leadership character and changes in the learning methods used (Graph 2) shows a disconnection. The methods most likely to develop character in leaders (job rotations, 360-degree feedback, on-the-job mentoring) are the methods in decline. While simulations/role-plays are on the rise and may serve an important role in character development, organizations would be wise to consider the whole of leadership development (both the heart and mind) in choosing which methods to implement.


While there was little difference in the percentage of high, moderate-, and low-performing organizations that identified priority skills, Graph 6 shows the skills in which there were significant differences. High-performing organizations placed higher priority on the skills of influencing others, motivating others, and leaders developing themselves. Lower-performing organizations placed higher priority on providing feedback and performance management.


High-performing organizations were significantly more likely to use a wider variety of learning methods than lower-performing organizations. While overall, high-performing organizations were more likely to use all learning methods, Graph 7 shows there was a statistically significant difference in the use of seven specific learning methods.

These learning methods are an interesting combination of more self-directed learning (games, open-source) and more work-embedded learning methods (job rotations, on-the-job training, action learning, 360-degree feedback). This suggests both a focus on supporting the transfer of learning to work performance, as well as providing learning in forms suited to a new generation of leaders.


For the second year, we included a series of questions on the emerging topic of the value of mindfulness practices within leadership development initiatives. Results indicate a rapid growth in mindfulness training. In 2019, only 50 percent of organizations included mindfulness training in leadership development. This number grew by 20 percent this year. Now, more than 70 percent of organizations said they have a program on mindfulness or include mindfulness activities in their leadership development.

There are very large differences between high-performing and lower-performing organizations in the use of mindfulness techniques in leadership development, as Graph 8 shows. More than 60 percent of high-performing organizations included mindfulness activities in their training and treated mindfulness as an important part of their culture. This dropped to less than 30 percent for low- and moderate-performing organizations.


A clear difference between high- and lower-performing organizations is the degree to which executives are involved in leadership development. Graph 9 shows that high-performing organizations are much more likely to have executives directly involved in all aspects of leadership development. Some 72 percent of high-performing organizations had executives lead leadership development sessions, compared to only 30 percent of low-performing organizations. Some 98 percent of executives in high-performing organizations publicly acknowledged leadership as an important competitive advantage, while only 59 percent of low-performing organizations did.


Another large difference between high-, moderate-, and low-performing organizations is the degree to which organizations support new leaders in the transition to a leadership position. Graph 10 shows the percentage of organizations that strongly agree with each of the statements supporting the transition of new leaders. High-performing organizations are much more likely to provide a range of support for new leader transition—in particular coaching and mentoring during the transition— helping them adopt more advanced leadership skills, and developing new relationships with peers and direct reports.


A critical difference between high- and lower-performing organizations is how well their approach is directed toward the needs and expectations of new leaders. High-performing organizations are significantly more likely to consider the desires of the next generation of leaders in implementing leadership development efforts. Graph 11 shows the percentage that agree or strongly agree on actions organizations take to support the next generation of leaders. Almost 90 percent of high-performing organizations actively recruited people to take leadership positions, compared to less than 40 percent of low-performing organizations. Another key difference is that 71 percent of high-performing organizations matched their development approach to younger leaders’ expectations, whereas only 11 percent of low-performing organizations did so.


High-performing organizations are also much more likely to take advantage of the current generation of leaders to help prepare the next generation. As Graph 12 shows, nearly 80 percent of high-performing organizations took steps to leverage the talents of current leaders to develop new leaders, while only 20 percent of low-performing organizations did so. High-performing organizations also have stronger bench strength, have a succession plan in place, and take steps to capture the knowledge of current leaders.


There is a distinct difference between high- and lowper-forming organizations when it comes to the specific actions they are taking to support the development of new leaders. Results show that high-performing organizations were more likely to provide on-the-job coaching, create stretch assignments, and use knowledge-sharing platforms (Graph 13).


The results of this survey suggest a number of actions organizations can take to strengthen their leadership development efforts by modeling the practices of higher-performing organizations. Specifically, the results indicate you can achieve a greater impact by:

Developing leadership character. Great leaders do not command excellence; they build excellence. Leadership character is at the core of building excellence. While you cannot train character, you can develop it over time through mentoring and collaborative learning— but the time to start is now.

Focusing on people skills. Just as high-priority character issues focus on showing you value others, higher-performing organizations are focused on skills such as influencing and motivating others.

Getting executives engaged. While more senior executives are beginning to see leadership development as a priority, this needs to be followed by specific action. The executive team needs to communicate specific expectations, model desired leadership behavior, and create leadership succession plans.

Supporting the next generation of leaders. High-performing organizations are more likely to tailor learning methods to the new generation of leaders, help new leaders manage the transition to leadership positions, and leverage the knowledge of current leaders. Creating more mentoring relationships between current and future leaders and encouraging the Baby Boomer generation of leaders to embrace the role of coach will help develop both the skills and character of new leaders.

Incorporating mindfulness into leadership. There has been rapid growth in the use of mindfulness practices in leadership development; however, there is still a large gap between high- and low-performing organizations in their use of mindfulness techniques. If you are not teaching mindfulness practices for leaders, you are missing important benefits.

By implementing these best practices of leadership—and character—development, L&D professionals can help shape the next generation of leaders, and all employees. As John Quincy Adams said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”


More than 530 Learning and Development (L&D) professionals responded to the 2020 Leadership Development survey between January 5 and February 17, 2020. Overall, in the last three years, we have collected data from nearly 2,500 professionals. All were employees of companies that create and use leadership development services with their own employees; external providers of learning and development services were excluded from the results.

The 2020 survey responses consisted of a well-balanced representation of professionals and decision-makers within the learning and development industry. The majority of respondents (58 percent) had management responsibility, with the largest groups having the title of Manager (26 percent) or Director (20 percent).

A little more than half of the respondents (55 percent) operated only in the United States; the remaining were composed of global (27 percent) and multinational (18 percent) companies. Organizations were fairly evenly distributed in company size, ranging from less than 100 employees to more than 50,000, with the largest group (21 percent) having 1,000 to 5,000 employees. As a whole, organizations spent $1.55 million on training annually, slightly lower than the $1.8 million spent in 2018 but higher than the $1.3 million spent in 2017.

Michael Leimbach, Ph.D., is a globally recognized expert in instructional design and leadership development. As vice president of Global Research and Development for Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc., he has worked with numerous Global 1000 organizations in Australia, England, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and throughout the United States. Over more than 35 years, Dr. Leimbach has developed Wilson Learning’s diagnostic, learning, and performance improvement capabilities, published 100-plus professional articles, coauthored four books, served as editor-in-chief for the ADHR research journal, and is a frequent speaker at national and global conferences. He also serves on the ISO Technical Committee (TC232) on Quality Standards for Learning Service Providers and on the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development Dean’s Advisory Board. For more information, contact Wilson Learning at 800.328.7937 or visit

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Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.