Putting leadership theory into practice

Recently whilst reading an IIP re-accreditation review report for a client, I came across the comment that ‘Executives and Senior Managers have generally received a great deal of leadership development, support and training’.  It went on to say that “their biggest challenge is how to exercise these skills in the current environment”.

As a leadership development trainer and provider I had struggled with this view for years, concerned as what happened when participants on generic leadership interventions returned back to the workplace.  We all carry out post-intervention evaluation, either immediately at the end, or a short period after; seeking information on all sorts of things; knowledge of the trainer, their presentation skills, quality of the training rooms, even the food; but rarely do we ask ‘so how have you found putting the theory into practice!?’

The issue is that we use the theory to guide what and how we teach, not necessarily to enhance the participants’ performance.  For instanced a great deal of “leadership development” today, is in reality “personal development”; participants are given opportunities of all shapes and sizes, including psychological models, in order to look at their behaviour, and to enhance their personal development.   The end result often is that the participants feel they had a great experience even going so far as to call it life changing, but how to then apply such self-learning in the everyday working environment is a huge challenge.  The reality is, that we need to look beyond the learning intervention and the training environment where all we see are issues such as the quality of the presentation, how well the course facilitator conveyed the knowledge, and how comfortable and well-equipped was the training room.  We need to move closer with our leadership interventions to the everyday reality, culture and environment, of the participants.  We don’t need factional business case studies, but we do need to give illustrations as to how the application of the theory can enhance the participants’ leadership effectiveness in everyday work related settings. Knowing what to do however is one thing, wanting to do it is another matter; the latter  involving all the skills, all the new found knowledge, some of which might cause discomfort, combined with the emotional intelligence and awareness of how this will impact on self and others.

To influence leadership and to be able to enhance the capability and the effectiveness of the participants; requires constant feedback and reflection.  As trainers and developers of executives and senior managers we need to be working with the Board, with HR and or OD, to ensure that the interventions we offer are robust,  contextual, and are aware of cultural and environmental issues.  In particular, we need to be working together to ensure that the organisation is ready to support participants on their leadership journey; as they transfer the theoretical newly acquired learning into their working environment.

Oft quoted are analogies referencing the implementation of leadership development which quite rightly recognise the difficulties involved in areas such as style, behaviour and attitude development, without providing the answers. i.e. it’s like buying a pair of new shoes, which look great in the shop, but when you start to wear them they pinch a little and if you are not careful you put them at the back of the cupboard never to be worn again! How does that help, other than don’t buy new shoes!

We need to look beyond the intervention; to put ourselves into the mind of the participant, and in doing so, be there to help them as they try out the new skills, so that when faced with the inevitable ups and downs of trying something different, they reflect, understand, learn, and in the words of the old song “pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again”

Let’s take an example.  As a leading executive, you have undertaken leadership development; you may even have a coach or mentor.  How can you use all this learnt theoretical knowledge to enhance your leadership effectiveness as you seek to take your team forward, together facing the next challenge; whether that is the launch of a major initiative, or even facing up to that difficult team meeting ; what could we tell you to do in order to convert theory into practice.

Well, we could tell you to:


  • STOP – take a deep breath
  • THINK – engage, brain, wisdom and experience
  • REFLECT – on where you are, what had happened, what you need to do
  • FINALLY – get yourself into the right frame of mind, where you can exercise calm, confidence, control; so that you can release that new learning


  • VIEW THE TEAM – where are they, how are they, what do they need
  • LISTEN – be aware, who’s energised, who’s motivated, who needs support


  • MOTIVATE – use inspirational language to explain where you are about to take them, the journey you are going on, and why.
  • ENGAGE – share the problem, co-create the strategy and plan; give them the task, encourage them to want to do it
  • EMPOWER – enable them to do what needs to be done, whilst you monitor and support them and the progress they are making

At the Worldly Leadership Foundation we build into all our senior leadership programmes  methods to help senior leaders put all the theory they may have learned into practice.

For more information about our senior leadership development programmes please get in touch