• Stephen Duns

The Three T’s of Leadership Development

There are all sorts of expectations of people who go to a leadership development program. There are also all sorts of expectations of those of us who run leadership training programs. Jeffrey Pfeiffer, in his book Leadership BS[1], berates the leadership development industry for putting on inspiring but ineffective leadership development events and programs. My own experience suggests that there is an expectation that a leadership development program is at least inspirational and, even better, transformational. Unless that (unreasonably?) high bar is reached the program has not been a success. If the program lacks inspiration the facilitators usually blame the participants and the participants blame the facilitators. Often facilitators will blame themselves too, as we typically want to be inspirational at some level.

For some time I have held a different view. There are three core types of value that can be gained from a leadership development program and each has its value, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive. The three levels are transactional, transitional and transformational.

Transactional value is best described as learning new knowledge and skills that support better leadership. Examples of these leadership sills are coaching, how to have a difficult conversation, systems thinking, how to diagnose a challenge as technical or adaptive, just to name a few. It can also be knowledge or even insight into self-awareness, such as a psychometric assessment that offers information about how we are in the world and some suggestions of how to improve. Too often this type of learning is regarded as “less than” but in my experience it can be just what some people need and how they judge the program to be of benefit. Whenever I start a program with an expectations exchange some people will say that what they want out of a program is new skills.

Transitional value is achieved when a program allows someone to move from one place to another. One of the most difficult transitions in leadership is from technical expert to achieving through others. It is often the case that someone has demonstrated some sort of mastery in a technical sphere, such as sales, policy or a professional discipline, and as a result is promoted into a position of authority over others. Even though their technical expertise has not prepared them in any way for leadership responsibility they are suddenly expected to be leaders. A leadership program can offer guidance and support to assist that sort of transition. Other transitions might be life stage, for example, adolescence into adulthood, worker to supervisor, supervisor to manager, manager to executive and adult to elder. These, and many other stages, require different types of leadership and a leadership program, or perhaps leadership coaching, can support that transition.

Transformational value is achieved when a new and improved state of being or understanding is achieved. Deep insights might result in a shift in values, the ability to expand perception and see the world in a new way. Using the framework of Rooke and Torbet, Seven Transformations of Leadership[2], a program might support the shift from one set of action logics to another, or the transition from conventional to post-conventional thinking. This is a powerful experience and not always comfortable.

Sometimes people are not ready or able to receive the value that is being offered, sometimes they have already moved beyond what is being offered. I know in my personal experience there have been times when I’ve soaked up a new idea, only to come to believe some time later that it’s helpful but maybe a little simplistic. I’m also sure that there have been times when I’ve been offered an opportunity to learn that I was just not ready for and it passed me by. The critical thing is for participants to be open to the different types of value.

Going into a leadership program just wanting skills might be a mistake. Being open to the possibility of all three types of value allows participants to get maximum value from the program. It’s equally important that the program is designed to allow participants to access all types of value and not assume that all people need is an inspirational experience to make it worthwhile. A masterful facilitator will allow scope for all levels of development.

It's a mistake to believe that any one of these types of value is better than another. They all contribute to growth and development and good programs will provide the opportunity for all three. That’s how investment in leadership development can get the maximum return.

Stephen Duns


[1] Pfeiffer, Jeffrey (2015) Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, Harper Business,

[2] Rooke, David and Torbet, William, (2005) Seven Transformations of Leadership, Harvard Business Review

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