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How to Improve Your Leadership Development Investment

To be successful in a rapidly changing world, we need to invest in developing new leadership skills. According to, an estimated $166 billion was spent in 2019 on leadership development in the United States. The more a leader learns and effectively applies, the better they perform, and consequently, our organizations achieve better results. This statement is the tenet of leadership development training. While there is some logic in that statement, it overestimates the leader's impact on the company results. The statement also underestimates the effects of company culture, the leader-follower relationship, and leader and follower traits on organizational outcomes. This article provides evidence-based insights and four simple steps to unlocking organizational talent potential and boosting corporate results by moving beyond leadership development.

"If you believe that training is expensive, it is because you do not know what ignorance costs." (Leboeuf).

Leaders perform within the company’s culture and are a part of the culture. Also, by sheer numbers alone, the most substantial part of an organization are followers, not leaders. Too often, we look to a leader to achieve organizational results rather than focusing on the reality that most results come from followers. By definition, leaders need followers, or they are not leaders. Leadership is the service to others and followership is the service to the leader, both united in a common purpose and interdependent.

Followership can account for up to 80% of organizational results (Carsten et al.).

To maximize the leadership development investment organizations, need insight into understanding: (1) globalization's influence, (2) leader-follower relationship, (3) cultural context, and (4) desired follower and leader traits.

Insight #1. Globalization

The business world is shrinking as large multinational companies continue to expand into new markets. The makeup of our workforce in our companies is becoming more diverse. One of the critical issues facing most senior leaders is the lack of ready employees within their organization. For more than ten years, we have known that organizations would begin to struggle to find talent as the Baby Boomers start to retire. Generation X is not large enough to fill the gaps created by the Baby Boomers exit from the workforce. In turn, each of the past five years, the war for talent has intensified globally. In the past, it was a company-specific problem. Now globally, countries are recognizing the challenges and looking at their policies to expand their country's workforce. If you listen to the news, you know our world is full of complex problems like cybersecurity and global political uncertainty. Still, talent management is in discussions from the boardroom to the breakroom. Companies are turning to leadership development to help solve their complex challenges. The leadership development industry is booming. Likely your company is making new investments in leadership development or considering an investment.

Insight #2. Understanding the Leader-Follower Relationship

Followership is a relatively new term compared to leadership. Followership is often perceived as a passive activity; conversely, effective followership is active and courageous. We are not talking about effective followership being a "yes man" but speaking truth to leadership and daring to disagree. Leaders in organizations are also followers. The CEO of a publicly-traded company is a follower of the board of directors. It is common to think of the follower's value in the leader-follower relationship as being half of the total amount of the relationship. Still, it is likely more accurate to think of the value of working on the leader-follower relationship as a multiplier. The follower can improve the leader's results, and the leader can enhance the follower's outcomes—globally, organizations sub-optimize leadership development strategy when focusing only on the leader. Healthy leader-follower relationships require a supportive organizational culture, specific traits, and development to enhance corporate results from leadership development investments.

Insight #3. Cultural Context for the Leader-Follower Relationship

Culture is one of those words that you will get ten different responses if you ask ten employees to define it. Contemporary definitions recognize culture as far more than only what employees do at work, and culture impacts social relationships like the leader-follower relationship. The globalization of the workforce within companies creates an increasingly complex and diverse workplace with various beliefs, values, and behavioral norms represented. You may notice these cultural differences by hearing employees talking about how it feels different in this office instead of another office, observing leader performance shifts when they take on new but similar responsibility for leading other workgroups, or when there are diverse perspectives on an identified successor. To focus solely on leader development and exclude the culture in which the leader-follower relationship exists limits the effectiveness of the investment in the leader. Cultural beliefs, values, and norms also need to be understood and aligned to support the leader-follower relationship. Research exists for how cultural values support leadership such as, The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer. However, there is little work on understanding how cultural values support followership. Organizations must have a culture where the leader-follower relationship can thrive. Globalization and the increasing diversification of the workforce will continue to increase company culture's significance on leader-follower relationships and organizational results.

Insight #4. Follower and Leader Traits

The volume of research on followership lags leadership research. Google's search for the word "leadership" returns 2.0 billion hits, and the word "followership" returns 0.001 billion hits. The expanding use of technology enables independent decision-making by followers. This change makes one of the essential traits for a follower, the willingness to disagree, and let the leader know the truth even when challenging to deliver. Inversely a critical characteristic for a leader is active listening. Leaders need to be able to listen to what is said and the feelings shared. Recently, there has been an increase in focus from senior leaders on understanding leaders' success traits for use in selection, competency models for development, performance management, and succession planning. Once a company defines the attributes of effective leader-follower relationships, they can be used to create similar models for selection, development, and performance. Senior leaders can then use these talent management processes to measure performance and provide meaningful feedback and recognition to employees.

4 Steps for Boosting Organizational Results

This article's intent is not to present that companies should focus on the leader-follower relationship instead of leadership development. Preferably by taking the following simple steps, you can boost organizational results by moving beyond leadership development topics alone.

Step 1. Setting the Stage

An excellent place to start introducing the concept and attributes of effective leader-follower relationships is with the organization's senior leadership team. Conduct a workshop with the company's senior leaders with the objective of defining the meaning of the word's followership and leadership in the organization's context. The purpose of this discussion is to reinforce the importance of the leader-follower relationship, identify cultural differences that likely exist in a diverse workforce, and create expectations. After discussing definitions, you can use the research on leadership and followership to define the traits identified for effective leader-follower relationships in company-specific language. An example would be to take the attributes of speaking truth to leadership and active listening and discuss behavioral examples of what each would look like put into action within the company. The senior leadership team's help in identifying and describing the attributes is to help ensure buy-in for company standards when incorporating these into the various talent management processes.

Step 2. Creating a Movement

Next, engage intact work teams in workshops set up similarly as in step one with the senior leadership team. It is essential to discover cultural differences across the organization and work toward alignment. Senior leaders choosing to engage the workforce in this discussion need to recognize the relationship between time, cost, and quality. Each of these variables impacts the next. Companies that only invest a minimal amount of time and funding toward creating the movement will achieve limited quality and vice-versa.

Step 3. Building Reinforcement

At this point, it is crucial for human resources to update the appropriate company competency development models, performance management processes, and job descriptions to include the ideal leader-follower relationship attributes. Updating these documents and processes provides clear and explicit expectations and feedback for leaders and followers.

Step 4. Creating Sustainability

It will also be essential to consider this work's long-term sustainability, so incorporating the leader-follower development into the orientation and onboarding will help assimilate new employees into the culture and company. Developing employees in the concept and attributes of the leader-follower relationship will maximize the value of leadership development investments.

To learn more about how your organization can boost organizational results by moving beyond leadership development contact Organizational Talent Consulting.


Blair, B. A., & Bligh, M. C. (2018). Looking for leadership in all the wrong places: The impact of culture on proactive followership and follower dissent. Journal of Social Issues, 74(1), 129-143.

Carsten, M.K., Koonce, R., Bligh, M.C., & Hurwitz, M. (2016). Followership in action. Cases and commentaries. Emerald Publishing Limited.

Gobble, M. M. (2017). The value of followership. Research Technology Management, 60(4), 59-61.

Kelley, R. E. (1988). In praise of followers. Harvard Business Review, 66, 142.

Leboeuf, M. (1985). The greatest management principle in the world. Putnam Publishing Group.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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