Developing Leaders in the Workplace

By Terry Sexton, business psychologist and founder of Creative Edge Consulting Ltd

Leaders are ‘forged in the fire of experience’ not on traditional training courses.  Learning to lead takes place in the business through facing challenging experiences,  the sort of challenge where the leader realises that their existing way of viewing the world is no longer relevant.  As a consequence a new perspective begins to emerge as the leader develops a higher level of capacity. However, in the process many leaders get burnt out and often bring down their business.

On average it takes a journey of 20 years to progress through the novice and intermediates stages to become an expert leader.  Many businesses have recognised that this development journey needs be accelerated to ensure there are sufficient people who are able to lead successfully in today’s complex, uncertain, and rapidly changing global society.

To accelerate the development of leaders and reduce the risk of them burning out and bringing down their business three things need to happen: –

  1. The leaders need to be sufficiently prepared for the challenging experience
  2. The challenge needs to be at the right level
  3. The leaders need to be supported through the transition of developing a new perspective

The type of preparation, challenge and support will vary according to the current level of leadership capacity of the leader.  Novice Leaders are levels 1 to 3, Intermediate Leaders are at level 4, and Expert Leaders are level 5 and above.


For leaders to develop from workplace experiences they need to first learn or enhance their skills for reflective learning.  For people who are planning to start their journey of leadership development it is important they have a successful leader as a role model who is similar to them in terms of personality.  This enables the person to identify themselves as a potential leader and create their vision of the leader they want to become.  For novice leaders aspiring to become intermediate leaders it is important that they first gain a good sense of their authenticity. This can be achieved through the use of type or trait based psychometrics such as the MBTI, 16PF, CPI or OPQ and 360° appraisals.  To prepare people to become expert leaders it is necessary to ensure that they don’t get caught in the ‘expert trap’ which is characterised by rigid thinking.  This can be achieved through practicing exercises that enhance cognitive agility.


Developing Leadership Capacity in the WorkplaceWorkplace challenges which provide leaders with development opportunities can come from activities such as job rotation, business improvement projects and shadow boards, etc.  Whatever the activity it is important that the developing leaders face a challenge where their current perspective on the world is inadequate.  As a result the leader develops a new perspective that enables them to meet challenge.  To ensure optimal development the challenge must be one level above the leaders current level of capacity.  If the challenge is too great the leaders will be ‘in over their heads’ and may burn out as a consequence.

The current level of leadership capacity can be ascertained through a number of different methods.  To gain a comprehensive view we use a range of what we call ‘2nd Generation Psychometrics’ which explore the dynamics below personality.  We profile cognitive agility with the ‘Cognitive Process Profile’, motivation and emotional intelligence are profiled using the ‘Motivational Profile’, and the leader’s worldview is profiled with the ‘Value Orientations’ which draws on Spiral Dynamics theory of Don Beck and Chris Cowen.  Alternatively, Robert Kegan’s ‘Subject-Object Interview’ or the ‘Sentence Completion Test’ developed Bill Torbert may also be used. To determine the level of challenge in the work environment the Center for Creative Leadership has developed from their research a diagnostic questionnaire called the ‘Job Challenge Profile’.

In general terms, to develop novice leaders it is important that these activities provide opportunities for them to gain expertise in a particular area.  This gives the novice leaders confidence to lead from a position of knowledge.  For those seeking to become intermediate leaders they often develop from working on projects outside of their own area or discipline and have direct impact on the performance of the business.  To become expert leaders people should have the opportunity to experience working across their industry to have a positive impact in society. 


To successfully navigate the transition between levels of leadership capacity it is necessary to provide the level of support that matches the level of challenge.  This is important as the leaders will experience a loss of confidence and their sense of identity as they realise their current world view is preventing them from successfully meeting the challenge.  The support can be provided through a variety of means such as developmental coaching, facilitated action learning groups, and mentoring.

Developing leaders in the workplace through preparation, challenge, and support accelerates the development process and enables them to be successful in increasingly complex, uncertain, and rapidly changing business environments.  This approach also reduces costs associated with off-site training, removes the problems of transferring learning from course to workplace, and has an immediate and positive impact on business performance.

If you would like more information about this article, or want to develop a greater understanding of Leadership Development, then please contact or find us on Twitter @wiseleader.

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