Leadership Development on the Job

Organizations spend billions of dollars on leadership development each year in hopes of reaping benefits of superior leadership (e.g., productive employees, strategic growth, higher profits). While most of these billions are spent on programs conducted outside of the leaders’ day-to-day jobs, informal on-the-job experiences and challenges prove to be the most educational and enriching for leaders.

Up for a Challenge?

The on-the-job experiences that provide opportunity for growth are those that challenge leaders, stretching them beyond their current knowledge base. Such developmental challenges involve:
  • Unfamiliar responsibilities – handling new responsibilities and job duties
  • Creating change – making changes in processes and employees’ behavior to solve problems and improve the organization
  • High levels of responsibilities – managing important and complex projects and initiatives
  • Working across boundaries – managing and influencing people or processes over which one does not have direct authority
  • Managing diversity – leading people with different backgrounds, gender, ethnicity, and cultures
However, there comes a point when a developmental challenge can be too much for a leader to mentally process. At this point, the challenge results in diminishing returns due to the leader’s limited capacity to process the event/situation and overarousal and mental strain caused by anxiety and uncertainty of how to handle the challenge. Leaders may vary in the amount and type of challenge they can handle; however, after a certain point, a leader will not gain any leadership skill development.

Feedback Availability

Although there may be situations that are too challenging for a leader to gain any developmental benefits, by making feedback readily available to the leader, the likelihood of such experiences still being productive will increase. Feedback provides support, reflection, and information helpful for the leader to handle a challenge and turn it into a learning experience.

Implications for Practice

In order for leaders to develop their leadership skills most effectively and efficiently, organizations need to provide the opportunity for them to be challenged on the job. While seemingly practical and informative alone, only so much can be gained from leadership training outside of the everyday workplace if it is not accompanied with on-the-job experiences and challenges. Experiences on the job allow leaders to stretch their limits and learn. The key is to know leaders’ limits. By closely monitoring and supporting them through challenging experiences, leaders will continue to expand their leadership abilities and lead their organization to the next level.

Lexy Adkins


This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: DeRue, D. S., & Wellman, N. (2009). Developing leaders via experience: The role of developmental challenge, learning orientation, and feedback availability. Journal of Applied psychology, 94, 859 – 875.