Woman looking through telescope toward the future of leadership development


The Future of Leadership Development in the Post COVID-19 Era

The pandemic has halted leadership development as we know it. But it’s also an opportunity to shape the new future of leadership development. 

Publish Date: May 14, 2020

Read Time: 6 min

Author: Mark Busine

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“History never looks like history when you are living through it.” In the past few years, I often used this quote from John Gardner to highlight the rapid pace of change in leadership development. But as I look to the future of leadership development in the post-COVID era, I think most people already recognize that this will be a profound period of change. 

The pandemic has touched every corner of the world and every aspect of business. We know that things will not go back to normal. Businesses and industries that don’t adapt quickly won’t make it in this new world. This will be a historical moment that changes the shape of the world and economy permanently. 

What does that mean for the future of leadership development? For starters, it means we must embrace a broader range of learning options including virtual and digital learning. And I have no doubt there will be plenty of new tech tools to help us.  

But how we handle the switch to virtual and digital is key. This is the make-it-or-break-it moment for the future of leadership development. 

If we do it well, we can develop leaders better and more efficiently than ever before. But the risk is that we simply try to substitute technology for current approaches. It’s easy to get caught up in the appeal of technology and miss the ultimate goals of behavior change and leadership performance. If we want to leverage the potential of digital – and we should – we need to stay focused on outcomes. 

Why many digital options haven’t stuck 

The optimism about technology and digital learning isn’t new. For decades, we’ve been saying that the digital revolution is here. With every technology advance (internet, artificial intelligence, virtual reality), we experience renewed enthusiasm.  Yet we continue to rely on the classroom for leadership development. With each new technology, the approach never seems to stick.  

Over the years, I’ve seen many companies announce their intentions to move to digital options. Often, that means that they get rid of classroom learning in favor of on-demand online learning. The problem is that these approaches rarely create real behavior change in leaders. And leaders miss the social and collaborative elements of traditional learning. So, when the novelty of the technology wears off, the program dies. Or they switch back to the classroom. 

The problem isn’t the technology. The problem is how we choose to use the technology. Too often, we assume that one approach can replace all other approaches. That is like trying to pick the best ingredient in a recipe.    

As we stand at this crossroads, the big mistake will be using technology as a temporary fix for the short-term problem. Instead, we need to leverage technology in pursuit of genuine pedagogical opportunity to shape the future.  

The future of leadership development must include technology 

When we talk about technology, we want to use it to accomplish what we couldn’t do before. For example, there’s no denying that virtual reality is extremely cool. But it’s only a useful tool when it’s being used to create impact we couldn’t before. 

For example, we’ve been able to use virtual reality to deliver a highly emotional experience that truly changes how people feel about inclusion. And we’re exploring how a multi-user VR classroom allows for collaboration like never before, including building 3D models in the classroom and learning in custom environments. My point is that it needs to have specific new uses to be valuable. Otherwise, it will be a fad that loses interest over time.  

Right now, the hottest thing we’re seeing is virtual classroom. Unsurprisingly, it’s a powerful option as social distancing becomes the new normal.  

The reason it’s working so well for many people is that we developed virtual classroom more than a decade ago, and use it as it’s own unique format. While it offers many of the same benefits of the traditional classroom, it also offers distinct advantages. Ultimately, the virtual classroom cannot just be a “virtual classroom.”  It must offer a leadership development experience built on the advantages of the technology and context it serves.  

For more tips on the use and evolution of virtual classroom check out two recent DDI blogs -  Five Critical Steps For A Successful Virtual Classroom Experience and The Virtual Workplace Creates a Leadership Development Revolution.  

Will the band get back together? 

As the future of leadership development looks increasingly virtual, the question is whether the traditional classroom will come back. The answer is yes, eventually, but it will be different. 

It reminds me of the challenges the music industry faced in the late 90s and early 00s. Up to that point, live music had typically been used to fuel the sale of recorded music, the economic engine of the industry.  

However, with a profound shift in technology and consumer behavior, music sales fell dramatically. Artists and the industry were in a deep commercial quandary. Do they dig their heels in? Or reinvent how they create music experiences?  

The answer was to reshape the live concert experience. They created something that people saw as valuable in its own right and couldn’t experience through any other format. Today (at least, until the pandemic hit), concerts and live music fuel the commercial success of artists and the industry.   

The leadership development industry faces a similar moment. As we rapidly shift to virtual and digital learning environments, some are suggesting that classroom learning will be a thing of the past (the pre COVID 19 era). 

I’m not so sure. While we’ve found creative ways to support and even enhance human connection through these difficult times, people will continue to seek out opportunities to connect and learn in person.  

But things will change, largely driven by leaders’ demands. They won’t tolerate dull, didactic learning events built on dense content and dated instructional design principles. Instead, they will be looking for learning experiences that are immersive, personalized, deeply relevant, and engaging. If we ask them to gather in person, there better be a good reason. While the band may get back together, it will need to look and sound very different. 

Designing the future 

If we don’t manage this opportunity well, the future of leadership development will be bleak. If digital programs don’t deliver the results and behavior change organizations need, development will drop down the priority list as budgets get tighter. 

Frankly, organizations can’t afford for that to happen. In a strong economy, companies can still find success even with relatively ineffective leaders. But in tight times, businesses can’t have a single weak link. Every leader needs to be their best. 

So it’s critical that we start now. We can’t afford to wait months or years to get started. Leaders need support, and it’s up to us to create the experiences they need. As we say at DDI, better leaders create a better future. And we’ve never needed our leaders more than we do now. 

To learn more, download DDI’s Leadership Development Playbook. 

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