The Important Role of Experience in Leadership Development

Topic(s): development, leadership, training
Publication: Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice (2010)
Article: Recasting Leadership Development
Authors: M.W. McCall; P.R. Yost, M.M. Plunkett; B.E. Baran, M. Adelman; D. Day; D.S. DeRue, S. Ashford
Reviewed by: Samantha Paustian-Underdahl

Despite a large body of research showing that experiential-based development can be implemented effectively and strategically, the HR community has been slow to embrace the idea that on-the-job experience should be the driving force in development. McCall (2010) highlights seven conclusions that have been drawn from research over the past few decades about the role of experience in leadership development:

1. To the extent that leadership is something learned, it is learned from experience. Research on twins done at the University of Minnesota has considered how personality and experience contribute to ‘‘leadership role occupancy.’’ These researchers found that 30% of leadership effectiveness is explained by heredity but the vast majority (the remaining 70%) is due to experience.

2. Certain developmental experiences are more important than others. Multiple studies have shown that successful managers describe similar experiences that shaped their development in different ways. These experiences include early work experiences, short-term assignments, major line assignments, other people (almost always very good and very bad bosses or superiors), hardships of various kinds, and some miscellaneous events like training programs.

3. On-the-job experiences are powerful because of the challenges they present. The factors that make an experience challenging—e.g., high stakes, complex, high pressure, novel, unexpected—are what give each experience the potential to become a learning experience.

4. Different types of experiences can teach people different lessons. Depending on each person’s personality and other traits, it is difficult to determine whether or not a specific person will actually learn from the experience.

5. Job experiences and assignments can become more developmental. High caliber
learning experiences can be enhanced by providing feedback on learning progress and challenges.

6. In spite of obstacles commonly faced throughout careers, people can
obtain many of the experiences they need to succeed. Whether the impetus is an immediate boss or some organizational process such as succession planning, getting people into the experiences they need is a matter of knowing who needs what experiences, having the experiences available, and being willing to put developmental moves ahead of other priorities.

7. Learning is a complex process that takes place over time. It can be planned, but a lot of learning takes place sporadically. The author argues that competency models—which define leadership development procedures throughout most American organizations—may not be the best way to build a foundation for leader development.


The author believes that experience makes a much better starting point for leadership development. A single set of competencies applied to all leaders can create a straightforward way to talk about leadership and may even provide an integrated system of HR practices. However, since there is no one ‘‘best’’ way to lead, there is no one “best” set of competencies that an organization can use to effectively develop leaders. Successful leaders often have different styles, skills, and personalities. For example, Herb Kelleher, Jack Welch, and Anne Mulcahy were all successful leaders, but they achieved that success with their own unique styles and abilities. Thus, leadership development should be tailored to the specific strengths and weaknesses of each leader.

The author also discusses ways organizations can better focus their leadership development on business strategy by targeting their leaders’ work experiences. One obstacle HR managers may face in this process is how busy leaders are. Despite these forces working against leaders’ full commitment to development, leaders need to be educated on how to take responsibility for their own development. Leaders should create personal development plans based on the existing business strategy and the needs and goals of their job. In collaboration with their manager and HR team, leaders should identify the experiences that could offer meaningful lessons, find a way to get the needed experiences, and create the necessary feedback, support, and incentives to actually learn what they intend to learn.


Several commentaries agreed with the focal article, and expanded upon the discussion. Yost and Plunkett (2010) focus on how organizations can strategically and systematically leverage on-the-job experiences to make leadership development most effective. They believe that organizations should continue using competency models for leader development, but they should expand these models to form a leadership map that includes experiences, relationships, and learning agility or capabilities. Baron and Adelman (2010) argue that one of the most important contexts for using experiential learning may be to prepare leaders to manage crises. They believe that leadership development for organizational crises should involve vicarious learning, or learning from others who have experienced crises or narrowly avoided failure. They believe that simulations and interpersonal communication training may be the most effective types of experiential learning to prepare leaders for crises.

DeRue and Ashford (2010) believe that on-the-job experience is important for leadership development, however they argue that individual leaders need to be more cognizant of their own leadership development. Individuals need to set development goals, be aware of and manage how they frame the experience, and approach the experience with a learning orientation. The authors believe that these principles will protect individuals from feelings of learned helplessness, overconfidence, and the fear and anxiety that come with leadership, and will ultimately enhance the learning of leadership.


Leaders should be selected, trained, and promoted to (a) understand that leadership is critical to the business, (b) accept that talented people can learn to lead, (c) believe that they learn it through experience, and (d) have a long-term perspective. If this takes place, then the odds are good that they will model development and hold others accountable for it.

Further, the focal author recommends that organizations should consider developing people in the organization who understand strategic issues and know where challenging experiences will arise for leaders. These coaches can help people understand their strengths and weaknesses, and help them use this information for professional development. Finally, researchers and practitioners should consider the situations and contexts through which experiential learning may be most important for leadership development—for example, in managing organizational crises.



Focal Article:

McCall, M. W. (2010). Recasting Leadership Development. Industrial and Organizational Psychology3, 3-19.


Baran, B.E. and Adelman, M. (2010). Preparing for the Unthinkable: Leadership Development for Organizational Crises. Industrial and Organizational Psychology3, 45–47.

Day, D. (2010). The Difficulties of Learning From Experience and the Need for Deliberate Practice. Industrial and Organizational Psychology3, 41-44. 

DeRue, D.S. and Ashford, S. (2010) Power to the People: Where Has Personal Agency Gone in Leadership Development? Industrial and Organizational Psychology3, 24–27. 

Yost, P.R. and Plunkett, M.M. (2010). Ten Catalysts to Spark On-the-Job Development in Your Organization. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 3, 20–23.