Reframing Leadership Development in Higher Education

Reframing Leadership Development in Higher Education

By Chris R. Groscurth, Ph.D., PCC, and Steven E. Titus, J.D., Ph.D. | January 2023

As executive coaches and academics by training, one of whom has served as a university president and one who has spent his career coaching and consulting across higher education and variety of industries, we begin by asking: Is the way we’re developing academic leaders working? And, are our leadership development methods keeping pace with the changing demands of academic leadership?

Studies from The American Council on Education, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and Deloitte University have provided thorough analysis of the changing landscape and financial challenges facing higher education institutions. These changes also require a need for more diverse, inclusive, multidisciplinary, and enterprise-minded leaders.

We believe that this changing set of leadership demands warrants a reconsideration or reframing of leadership development in higher education. By reframing academic leadership development, we invite you to question your taken-for-granted assumptions about how leadership development occurs (e.g., through formal institutes and development seminars). We also invite you to join us in considering the invaluable role that structured experiences and coaching play in accelerating leadership effectiveness.

Out of respect to our partners in academic leadership development, we by no means wish to imply by that formal leadership development lacks value or efficacy. To the contrary, as educators and leadership development practitioners, we firmly believe that formal developmental experiences are essential for exploring one’s leadership style, learning new approaches to leadership, and grounding leaders in the issues facing higher education.

However, given the complexities and uncertainties that higher education faces, formal development—while necessary—is insufficient for preparing academic leaders. To address this gap in development, institutions must be more intentional about leadership development in general, and experiential development specifically, if they are to maximize leadership potential across higher education.

A viable complement to traditional “leadership training” solutions, as evidenced by our own research and practice, is an intentional and evidence-based approach to experiential learning and executive coaching. Our approach to leadership development centralizes the experiential nature of adult learning and the role that assessment and executive coaching can play in maximizing learning from both formal and informal experiences (see also Center for Creative Leadership, 2022; McCall, Lomardo, & Morrison, 1988; McCaluley & McCall, 2014).

What We Mean When We Say “Leadership Development”

Leadership development can be understood as the process of enhancing one’s capacity to effectively meet the demands of their leadership role. On a deeper level, leadership development involves more than rote acquisition of frameworks, strategies, and skills. True leadership development entails deep reflection and behavioral changes that are aligned with one’s personal calling and institutional demands. Leadership development is a journey. It’s hard work that requires a roadmap and companions who accompany you on the journey. And, yes, the journey can be uncomfortable, as the path is often filled with challenges and unforeseen obstacles.

Parker Palmer captures the nature of the developmental journey in writing, “Leaders need not only the technical skills to manage the external world but also the spiritual skills to journey inward toward the source of both shadow and light” (2000, p. 79). We agree with Palmer in that both technical and spiritual capacities matter in equipping leaders with the wisdom, skills, courage, and personal fortitude to journey into the unknown. However, our work goes one step further to address how we can support leaders’ developmental journey through key experiential moments.

Learning from Experience: The 70:20:10 Rule

There is a long-standing heuristic in the leadership development field called “the 70:20:10 rule.” Accordingly, 70% of development comes from experience, 20% from social learning, and 10% from formal learning. This heuristic is both intuitive and consistent with adult learning theory principles.

We believe that this framework is particularly helpful in reframing how leaders in higher education develop deeper leadership capacities (see also Gallos & Bolman, 2021). The 70:20:10 rule challenges assumptions about how institutions are investing in leadership development in higher education and/or whether or not our institutions are investing scarce resources in the right types of leadership development.

Despite the fact that as much as 90% of what leaders learn is rooted in experience and uncovered through interpersonal interactions with others, many institutions only invest in formal leadership development training (i.e., the 10%) for presidential, provost cabinet, and departmental leaders. Why? Because it’s all we’ve ever known and it has been “good enough” for equipping leaders with fundamental leadership skills and opportunities to network.

On the surface formal development is appealing on many levels. Send a leader to a nice retreat led by experts, get a binder full of insightful slides, meet some smart people, have engaging breakout conversations about new concepts, get inspired, eat a few meals together, go back to campus, and it’s back to business-as-usual. Everyone feels good because they’ve connected, learned a few concepts, and been “invested in” by their institution. However, what is missing from this equation is ongoing support, professional coaching, accountability, and structured companionship in getting the right experiences.

While formal learning can provide leaders with intellectual concepts and frameworks for leading well, abstract frameworks will only carry a leader so far on their development journey. These are merely foundational tools for helping leaders understand what leadership is and to provide them with options for how to adapt to leadership challenges. For such frameworks and tools to be effective, they must be applied, used, tested, and refined by the leader.

That’s where experience comes into play. Deep leadership development requires reflection and dialogue about “the stuff” of everyday leadership. Having coached hundreds of leaders between the two of us, we can attest to the age-old adage that experience is the most humbling teacher of all for seasoned executives.

Unfortunately, few institutions or “leadership advisors” have a scientific approach to leveraging structured experiences in academic leadership development.

The Value of Structured Experiences

Through our research and coaching practices, we have discovered that developmental experiences have an underlying structure. There are patterns in onthe-job learning that exist between leaders and across different institutional and organizational types. Developmental experiences have a beginning, middle, and end. How leaders encounter different types of experiences can vary based on the depth, breadth, and duration of a particular type of experiences.

What’s more, executives consistently report that certain types of developmental experiences, we call them “Key Experiences,” are more poignant and powerful in shaping their leadership mindset and behavior. For example, one client reflected on her first experience managing people and the lessons that she learned about setting clear expectations, providing candid feedback, and helping others improve their performance. Surely, this client could have learned feedback skills from a book or seminar. However, it was the lived experience of having to put such skills into practice that has left a lasting impact on how this leader approaches the key experience of “managing others” throughout her career.

Key Experiences can also be mapped and measured among current and future leaders. The first author has mapped key experiences across a variety of for-profit and non-profit institutional types (see also McCauley & McCall, 2014). The result is a robust “roadmap” for guiding experiential development and executive coaching plans.

When we begin to identify and measure where a leader is on their experiential journey, we can then target coaching and formal development efforts with greater precision, relevance, and lasting impact.

Tips for Maximizing Key Experiences with Executive Coaching

While our executive coaching engagements and research efforts continue to expand and fine-tune our database of key executive development experiences in higher education, we offer a few practical suggestions for helping academic leaders deepen leadership development at their institutions.

  • Take Inventory. Start by inventorying your current leadership development practices (see also Groscurth, 2018). What type of activities do you offer to help leaders expand their capacity?
  • Apply the 70:20:10 Rule. Analyze your institution’s leadership development practices using “experiential learning,” “social learning,” and “formal learning” as a lens for determining whether you have a balanced approach to developing leaders. What role does executive coaching play?
  • Establish your development philosophy. Executive cabinets should establish a leadership development philosophy in support of their strategic plan. A well-designed planning retreat can help establish your team’s point of view on how to develop future leaders, and can help guide investments in leadership development at appropriate levels across your institution.
  • Map the territory. Reflect on your own career and the experiences that have had the greatest impact on your leadership behavior. What would this look like across leaders at your institution? To learn more about key experiences and the role executive coaching play, start a conversation with Steve Titus.

The future of higher education is filled with opportunity and uncertainty. By reframing how you think about leadership development and intentionally expanding your approach to leadership development, you are giving yourself and your institution the best chance of thriving in the new reality of academic leadership.

We look forward to partnering with you on the journey!


Center for Creative Leadership. The 70-20-10 rule for leadership development. Leading Effectively, retrieved on August 31, 2022

Gallos, J.V., & Bolman, L.G. (2021). Reframing academic leadership, 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Groscurth, C.R. (2018). Future-ready leadership: Strategies for the fourth industrial revolution. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

McCall, M.W., Lombardo, M.M., & Morrison, A.M. (1988). The lessons of experience: How successful executive develop on the job. New York: The Free Press.

McCauley, C.D., & McCall, M.W. (eds.) (2014). Using experience to develop leadership talent: How organizations leverage on-the-job development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P. (2000). Let your life speak: Listening for the voice of vocation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About the Authors

Chris Gorscurth

Chris R. Groscurth, Ph.D., PCC

Executive Coaching Advisory Board Member

Dr. Chris R. Gorscurth is a member of Academic Search’s Executive Coaching Practice Advisory Board. He is a former Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach, certified Clifton Strengths® coach, professional certified coach (PCC) through the International Coach Federation, and author of the book Future-Ready Leadership: Strategies for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Dr. Steven E. Titus

Steven E. Titus, J.D., Ph.D.

Vice President and Executive Coaching Practice Leader

Dr. Steven E. Titus is President Emeritus of Iowa Wesleyan University, a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach, Certified Executive Coach, member of the International Coaching Federation, and Senior Fellow of the Institute of Coaching.


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