What Is the Difference Between Learning and Development When It Comes to Leadership?

September 30, 2020

Mark Smedley

What is the difference between learning and development when it comes to leadership? Four considerations to help you tell the difference.

ladders, with one ladder taller than the others, symbolizing what is the difference between learning and development

HR professionals are under a lot of pressure to prove that leadership development programs have a return on investment. When leaders’ time is precious and financial resources are limited, how do organizations get the most out of their programs? One way is to focus on the difference between learning and development. But what is the difference between learning and development?

Learning is defined as gaining new knowledge. And development is applying that knowledge to drive results and grow as a leader. So, in short, we simply can’t afford to build programs where leaders are learning but not developing.

What is the difference between learning and development? And how does it show up in your organization? For starters, if your leaders are learning but not developing, you might see one or more of the following:

1. The organization relies too much on self-directed learning.

It’s common to hear that leaders should own their development. Yes, it’s true that leaders should fully participate in development and try to apply what they’ve learned to get better. What this doesn’t mean is that we should only rely on self-directed learning.

Many organizations invest in huge online libraries of learning content. They show them to leaders as a “one-stop shop” for building leadership skills on demand. Sounds great, right? And as an added bonus, this content is often high-quality and presented in a compelling way.

Unfortunately, this build-it-and-they-will-come strategy doesn’t provide the same benefits as a more coordinated leadership development program. But what does a more coordinated program have? Leaders can also practice skills in a safe environment and socialize new behaviors while working with their peers. In addition, these programs allow leaders across the organization to begin to operate with a consistent set of leadership behaviors.

2. Leaders participate in programs but don’t change and grow.

Learning only becomes development when it’s applied on the job. When leaders go to training but don’t change their behavior, they may have learned, but they certainly haven’t developed.

And the cause of this lack of change and growth? It’s often a shortage of self-insight. Resources like 360 feedback tools and simulation-based assessments uncover blind spots. These resources also do a good job of showing leaders why they need to change and how they can do it. In addition, with the data and insights these tools provide, leaders become more committed to making a change.

Leaders also have a hard time changing when they feel their development isn’t connected to the organization’s business or cultural priorities. If the same learning programs have been in place for years despite significant changes to the organization, leaders may see the programs as outdated and disconnected from what they truly need to get better as a leader. But how can organizations fix this? Regular leadership needs analyses are a good place to start. It can also be helpful for organizations to align development offerings with the challenges their leaders are facing today.

3. Learning is episodic and lacks “connective tissue.”

When learning is event-based and not part of a bigger development experience, it’s hard to build the momentum for meaningful leadership development. Leaders may have a desire to make the most of leadership development opportunities, but ultimately, they need guidance and direction to do it.

For this reason, many organizations have adopted a learning journey approach. This approach views development as behavior change that takes place over time. And change is achieved through a focused mix of formal learning, one-on-one coaching, assessment, and online reinforcement tools (like job aids, microcourses, chatbots, and practice simulations). In a learning journey, leaders are given a road map for development as well as all the ways they can apply their learning on the job.


DDI research on the impact of learning journeys shows that organizations who adopt this approach are 3.4 times more likely to have high-caliber leadership development. These organizations are also 2.9 times more likely to have high leadership strength and 2.5 times more likely to be financially successful.

DDI Global Leadership Forecast, 2018

4. Learners don’t have support from their leaders.

Learners won’t truly develop when their own leader isn’t coaching them. In these cases, learning becomes the end and not the means to better performance. For learning to become development, the learner’s leader must challenge them to apply new skills and provide meaningful feedback.

In addition, a well-meaning manager may send struggling leaders to training so that “HR can fix them.” While someone struggling with their leadership skills should certainly take part in leadership development, relying on HR to fix performance issues may show that the leader’s leader isn’t playing an active role in their development.

What Development Has That Learning Doesn’t  

Leaders today face unprecedented challenges, pace of change, and pressure to achieve results. There isn’t time or energy for learning for learning’s sake.

So what is the difference between learning and development? The ultimate difference is this: learning can give leaders new skills, while development can help leaders solve the problems they face. Development inspires leaders to take on the challenges of leadership, armed with the right behaviors.

Get proven content to help your leaders quickly solve their toughest leadership development challenges. Learn about DDI’s leadership development subscription.

Mark Smedley is a Client Relationship Manager for DDI. He works with healthcare organizations to design and implement their leadership strategies.

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