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This article is adapted from Irene M. H. Herold, “How to Develop Leadership Skills: Developing the Right Program for You,” Library Issues 35, no. 2 (November 2014).

The purpose of a leadership development program may seem obvious: to develop leadership—something we deans encourage our faculty to explore and grow in expertise at. But while we frequently speak about leadership as if everyone has the same definition, it has, like most complex ideas, been conceptualized in a variety of ways, such as skills, traits, or knowledge. Having examined over a dozen leadership development programs, all of which state that their purpose is to develop leadership, I wonder whether leadership is the actual outcome. Many programs include a self-assessment to further participants’ understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, provide exposure to leadership theories, facilitate discussions on topics of leadership, have inspirational guest speakers, and do some form of mentoring or coaching or both.

There is no consistent assessment of whether any of these approaches in fact result in leadership development. Why? Most program assessments rely on self-reported participant reactions rather than any analysis of change resulting from participation. This does not mean that the programs are unworthy or valueless but rather that an astute administrator needs to reflect on what the outcome of program attendance may be before sending early career, mid-level, or leadership team faculty to a program. On the whole, attendance at a one-day, three-day, or even weeklong leadership development program will probably cultivate a greater understanding of leadership in the participant. It would be unrealistic, however, to expect enduring change from a one-off experience unless the participant is required by the program or their job circumstances to apply such understanding once back home. There is a need for more systematic research on the efficacy of leadership programs to determine whether participants learned anything new, whether they retained that learning, how they applied that learning in the workplace, and whether that knowledge or those skills improved the individual or the workplace. In a two-part article series from 2017, Jeffrey L. Buller outlined two assessment approaches and also discussed the challenges with these assessments.

Multiple venues in higher education provide professional development opportunities, such as professional association–sponsored conferences and content-area focused workshops. Most campus leaders are familiar with the dean’s workshops sponsored by the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences or programs offered by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education through their Institutes for Higher Education. Sometimes academic administrators go to what is familiar and known without considering what they will gain from the program besides a leadership development experience or a credential to enhance their CV.

Applying the learning

What can a dean reasonably expect after sending a faculty member to a leadership development program? For one, a team member who now understands what foundational components must be in place to accomplish dynamic change. If the result of participation in a leadership program is creating an action plan, you may gain a faculty member exposed to tools and resources through a program they can apply at your institution. Having assessed their strengths, participants may return more confident in their abilities and thus step up to accept further responsibilities, such as chairing a department or committee instead of simply serving as a member or initiating a program rather than merely supporting one.

Value of the network

Participants in programs that were nominated report feeling supported (Herold 2015, 251; Jeffries 2015, 219). This feeling comes first from their supervisors seeing the value in sending them to a program. Second, participants return from the experience with a list of other developing leaders and the program faculty who form a resource network with whom they may consult. This network continues to provide value long after the workshop ends and may help by providing not only a knowledge bank from which to solicit approaches to issues in common but also new ideas to strengthen and keep apprised to changes in the field. Many programs facilitate participants continuing discussions or host reunions at professional meetings or both.

Program structure

Programs that participants report as having the most enduring value are more than just a one-time face-to-face or online experience. Prior to the pandemic, having some kind of in-person component was highly valuable, and as we transition to endemic times, this seems to be the case again. Program structures range from two- to three-week immersive experiences at a retreat location to a one- to three-year program with residency requirements and exchanges. Those who attended immersive experiences reported the benefit of being away from work and focusing on leadership topics with time to absorb and reflect on how to improve their knowledge and practice (Ryan, DeLong, and Garrison 2015, 145). They usually bonded deeply with their cohort and reported feeling refreshed with a plan of action to implement upon their return to campus.

Programs with a year-plus duration typically include a hybrid approach. Some include a mentor or coach, site visits or exchanges, and multiple readings. Most include a seminar, usually attached to a regional or national professional conference. These programs have been useful for mid-career faculty who either are deciding whether they are ready to apply their leadership or have recently stepped up to department chair or committee chair positions. Sometimes these lengthier programs, such as the American Council on Education (ACE) Fellows Program, provide internship opportunities in a different position or position level; participants have reported these types of program to be “life-changing.”

Attendees also perceived programs that required them to create a plan and report back after implementation as having enduring value. Plans could be personal, such as career action plans, or project based, such as implementations of innovative ideas. Reports could be simple emails to the program directors or presentations at a national conference, making participation in a program a “twofer”—a contribution to the faculty’s leadership knowledge and scholarship.

Programs that have inspirational speakers and large participant sizes may not lend themselves to engaged active learning. At the same time, such large group programs may expose participants to a wide variety of higher education leaders and institutional sizes. This may be useful in helping aspiring leaders understand different institutions’ needs and thinking. Programs sponsored by the members of the Council of Higher Education Management Association and the Higher Education Resource Service encompass this trans-institutional population of participants.

Some programs counter the large participant numbers with small-group breakout sessions for topical discussions, for case study consideration, or to work through problem-solving exercises that involve applying leadership concepts. Participants may also accomplish such application with projects they carry out upon return to their home campus.

Theoretical underpinnings of the programs

Another component of programs are the readings, which frame each program’s approach. Typical texts address leadership through different lenses, management theories, emotional intelligence, and resonance. A savvy dean will consider whether their faculty member already exhibits the emotional intelligence to profit more from a program on leading change. A newer-to-leadership faculty member may benefit most from exposure to a program that presents multiple leadership lenses. Participants who are unsure what makes someone a leader may find exemplary practices (such as case studies) most helpful as they work to create and acknowledge their own leadership potential. No leadership development program contains identical curriculum, so a program and its components warrant careful consideration to ensure the best possible outcome.

Lastly, make sure the potential participant considers their optimal learning preferences. If they are an extrovert who verbally processes, a program that mainly presents ideas to them without the opportunity for discussion may not be the best learning venue for them. By the same token, an introvert who needs time for reflection before coming to conclusions and applications may find a highly interactive in-person program exhausting and frustrating. These examples are a gross generalization, but how the participant learns and what format energizes them is key to optimal learning.

Investing in faculty leadership development does not have to be a risky venture. Just keep in mind these few ways to make the outcome match the potential:


Herold, Irene M. H. 2015. “Creating Leaders: Lessons Learned.” In Creating Leaders: An Examination of Academic and Research Library Leadership Institutes, edited by Irene M. H. Herold, 347–58. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries. https://openworks.wooster.edu/facpub/195

Jeffries, Shellie. 2015. “Taking Flight at Snowbird: Reflections on a Library Leadership Institute.” In Creating Leaders: An Examination of Academic and Research Library Leadership Institutes, edited by Irene M. H. Herold, 219–42. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries. https://openworks.wooster.edu/facpub/195

Ryan, Marianne, Kathleen DeLong, and Julie Garrison. 2015. “Leadership and Fellowship: The UCLA Senior Fellows Program.” In Creating Leaders: An Examination of Academic and Research Library Leadership Institutes, edited by Irene M. H. Herold, 141–51. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries. https://openworks.wooster.edu/facpub/195

Irene M. H. Herold, PhD, is dean of libraries and university librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University.