How Busy People Can Develop Leadership Skills

Carving out time for learning and development is critical for anyone who wants to improve their leadership competencies and performance outcomes. Yet finding the time for it is hard for many managers. With looming deadlines, daily tasks, and urgent meetings, learning to lead can often take the back burner. But advancing yourself doesn’t have to be excessively time-consuming. In fact, much of it can be done in the course of your daily work.

The latest research says that structured programs should only account for 10% of leadership development. The rest of your development should be spent on experimenting (70%) and self-discovery (20%). But what does that look like? And how do you get started? Here are several evidence-based approaches that work.

Leadership Development

Let’s start with the smallest chunk of time — leadership development. You may already be familiar with platforms to consider doing formal lessons on, but there are two things you need to do before you hit the “play” button on any video.

First, it is important to identify a key leadership area you want to develop. You’re already time-poor, so don’t try to tackle too much at once. Review any data or feedback that you have, such as performance reviews or results of a recent 360 survey. Identify no more than two competencies or skills you want to improve.

Second, set yourself a time limit. Really. I often see leaders making a critical mistake by trying to do too much, too fast. You will get excited, watch an hour’s worth of content in one day, get overwhelmed by too many ideas and tips, and either lose your motivation or try to implement and get discouraged by the lack of results. Instead, remember this is a long-term game. Small actions you do every day will be much more effective in the long term, than short bursts of activity.

Luckily, many online programs are built just this way with short videos, meaning that you only need to invest three to five minutes a day. Find a course that matches a developmental area you have identified. Commit to watching one or two short videos a day. And don’t just watch, make physical or mental notes of key takeaways and ideas for how to implement into your day.


Self-discovery should take up 20% of the time you spent on leadership development. Remember that you just spent less than 10 minutes a day on formal learning; we’re looking to spend just a bit more than that on self-discovery. And the good news is that you can do this during your normal day.

Here’s what you’ll need to do: spend time observing other leaders. Find a leader in your organization who demonstrates behaviors aligned with your areas of development. Observe how and what they do. If you have an opportunity, ask them questions about why they did something, but don’t push — we’re often not aware of our behaviors. Again, don’t just watch. Make notes and think about how you can replicate it.


Now the biggest chunk of time — experimenting. Think like a scientist and conduct small experiments to modify your typical behavior. Apply something that you have learned from online courses or by observing other leaders. For example, if you need to have a difficult conversation with a subordinate, try an approach you wouldn’t normally follow. Decide ahead of the meeting what specifically you will do. Try it and observe the results. Even if it fails, you can always fall back on what you already know and move on to the next experiment.

My research shows that experimenting is critical to strengthening your leadership identity or self-perception as a leader. Over time, acting in new ways will become ingrained in your sense of self.

While experimenting is the largest chunk of your development time budget, it’s also integrated into what you are doing each day and so it’s important to find time to record and reflect. Take notes about what you try and how it works. If you don’t already, experiment with a journaling practice to record your thoughts and reflections.

Becoming a Better Leader

Leadership development should be recognized as an ongoing part of professional life. And while dipping in and focusing on it when time allows is great, as we all know, time doesn’t always allow. That doesn’t mean that you can’t develop your skills. All it takes to become a better leader is dedication and a small investment of time.

If this still feels overwhelming, remember this: We mistakenly think that leadership development only occurs in the workplace. However, research suggests that most effective leaders learn all the time and everywhere. Being a parent, a community sports player, or a volunteer — all these roles involve an element of leadership. Think about what you can learn about leadership from these roles, conduct behavioral experiments in these other contexts, and reflect on how the learning applies to your work role. I guarantee it will help to accelerate your development as a leader in key areas you have identified.

This post is written by Darja Kragt.

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