Welcome to the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy's Executive Guide to Leadership Development Programs. Because you're busy managing employees, your family, and extracurricular interests, we've created this executive guide to be your 1-stop resource for leadership development.

Here's What You'll Learn

  1. Chapter 1: What Is Leadership Development?
  2. Chapter 2: How to Write a Leadership Development Plan
  3. Chapter 3: How to Develop Leadership Skills
  4. Chapter 4: How to Choose a Leadership Development Program
  5. Chapter 5: Leadership Development Program Outcomes


A Message from Dr. Carol Geffner, Director, EML




Chapter 1: What is Leadership Development?

A group of people standing on top of a mountain at sunset.

Leadership development can be defined as any initiative that makes people better leaders within their business enterprise, public sector organization, nonprofit organization, community, or personal life.

Top-notch leaders, aka “Superbosses,” are critical to the long-term success of any organization. They execute strategic visions, maintain clear communication, engage employees, promote a positive culture, and command respect while operating with high emotional intelligence.


Executive Leadership Qualities

Quote: "The starting point for being a great leaders is realizing you're the instrument of change." - Dr. Carol Geffner, Director of USC's Executive Master of Leadership degree programIn addition to the classic traits found in great leaders, such as “self-starter,” and “ability to motivate others,” executives today must be transformational leaders and clearly communicate their vision.

Good leaders also need to equally passionate about their workforce as they are about their mission. The best leaders know who is working for them, including details such as their employee’s dreams, goals, and even family situations. When leaders truly care for their workforce in a holistic way, their passion for the mission naturally inspires their team.

Finding an individual with all these traits may seem like a tall order. Fortunately, through deliberate practice and a continued, company-wide commitment, strong leadership can be cultivated. Without the necessary procedures in place, however, hiring managers are left searching for a diamond in the rough as demand for great leadership increases and supply shrinks.


Executives are Superbosses

Because it is so easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day minutia, we ask ourselves, "how do you maximize your time to drive change?" Sydney Finklestein’s research on superbosses – icons of success in their respective industries – revealed several unique traits. Superbosses hire the best people, consider more than credentials, create a steep learning curve, set high expectations, nurture skills, and are confident in their ability.


How to Identify Leadership Candidates

Although nearly 75% of executives agree that developing leadership is extremely important, less than half of those same executives see an actual investment being made in leadership training. The cause for this discrepancy is two significant challenges: 1.) finding diverse candidates and 2.) rallying organizational support for executive leadership training.

1. List Leadership Competencies

Many applicants may display the quintessential traits of a good leader on paper, but being able to accurately evaluate a candidate is crucial before investing in their development. The Harvard Business Review suggests establishing a set of clear and defined leadership competencies to better identify who should enter leadership development training programs.

2. Acknowledge Leaders Early

It is just as important that a candidate’s potential is acknowledged early. This acknowledgment often times can make up for any lack of confidence that may exist within a young manager. Organizations that demonstrate faith in young leaders early are more likely to succeed than ones without thorough and sustained plans of succession.


Nonprofit Leadership Development

Nonprofit leaders face unique challenges in relation to private sector executives. Executive Directors need to be creative when it comes to maintaining their organization without straying from their mission. Some of the common challenges include:

1. Fundraising

Exceptional nonprofit leaders understand the importance of financing. NGOs must maintain a balance of donations, bank loans, and government grants to keep the organization financially healthy during periods of donor fatigue.

2. Employee RetentionQuote: "To be a great leaders, you have to be comfortable with the fact that you have creative energy." - Dr. Carol Geffner, Director of USC's Executive Master of Leadership program

Not-for-profits have difficulty competing with private organizations. Aside from the satisfaction that comes with working toward a righteous mission, nonprofit organizations are challenged to compensate and retain their employees. In fact, 9 out of 10 nonprofits lack an employee retention strategy.

3. Maintaining Partnerships

In addition to funds and employees, NGOs need to maintain strong partnerships to improve the reach and effectiveness of the organization's services, and to make the mission more attainable.

4. Encouraging Board Diversity

People of color only represent 16% of nonprofit boards. Neurodiversity is a strategic advantage. If leverage properly, people with a range of experiences on your board means your organization's beneficiaries receive the help they need. To encourage diversity in the boardroom, read our recent article, 9 Thoughtful Ways to Encourage Diversity in the Workplace.

5. Donor Fatigue

Leaders must maintain the urgency and appeal of their mission that inspired donations to their cause in the first place. Superb nonprofit leaders who overcome donor fatigue drive their mission forward while engaging the public and creating positive change in the community.


Quote: "There's a higher purpose for what detectives and police officers do." - Lieutenant Scot Williams, LAPD

Law Enforcement, Emergency & Safety Leadership Development

Due to the high stakes nature of crisis leadership, leaders in this sector are under immense pressure to succeed. One prevalent leadership challenge is a lack of communication between sectors and organizations. Miscommunication between public and private entities, firefighters, police, and medical responders creates inefficiencies when responding to disasters.

To resolve these issues, leadership development programs help first responders learn from their past experiences, develop stronger cross-sector dialogue, and cultivate soft skills such as emotional sensitivity, empathetic listening, and clear communication.


Chapter 2: Write a Leadership Development Plan

Two women creating a leadership development plan in a business workplace.

As generations retire or ascend the rungs of the leadership ladder, organizations face common challenges when developing leaders.

To ameliorate this issue, organizations create effective leadership development programs to identify, attract, fill, and retain leadership talent. These programs focus on hiring strategies, employee development, and career and succession planning.


Get the Leadership Development Plan Checklist


How to Write a Leadership Development Plan that Actually Works

Let's explore four steps for how organizations and individuals alike can write a leadership development plan that works.

1. Communicate Your Vision

Having a clear vision is the first step to nurturing a positive organizational culture. Communicating your company's vision is living out the purpose and personifying the organization’s values of integrity, knowledge, and loyalty every day.

2. Set Organizational Goals

Your goals should reflect both the vision of your organization as well as the leadership team. Ask yourself, what does my ideal leadership team look like? How do I get there? What sort of timeline needs to be set so I can efficiently and effectively grow my team?

3. Develop Your Methods

Once you have determined what you believe to be your company’s core values and how you identify great leaders, get an idea of how you will execute their development within the company. Some offsite leadership development methods include:

  • Leadership workshops and seminars
  • Online training courses
  • Leadership conferences
  • Leadership coaching
  • Graduate programs
  • Offsite leadership training

4. Monitor Progress

Disciplined commitment to developing leadership skills is the most critical factor for growth. Merely writing a personal leadership development plan is not enough. If you're responsible for hiring or training employees, monitor and reassess it as often as possible.


Cross the Bridge to Leadership

Making a career change can be a daunting task. Thankfully, with a leadership development plan and these six tips you’ll be well on your way.

1. Get Started

Taking the first step is one of the hardest things in life, even if it’s welcomed. However, once this obstacle is cleared everything falls into place.

Quote: "Really think through who you are before you get to a leadership position." Charles Clarke, Former UK Labour Party Secretary2. See a Vision of your Future Leadership Position

It’s not just about identifying jobs, but also understanding the types of places you’d like to work. Research your options and find a good fit given your current skill set, what you can gain from further education, and where you’d like to be in the future.

3. Enlist Support for your Vision

Look at your professional network and ask yourself, "Who can I talk to in my network about crossing the bridge to leadership?" Look for mentors or people who are working in the role your aspiring for and see how they can support your leadership development.

4. Remove Barriers to Success

Honestly assess what you know, what you're capable of, and then find out areas need to be improved. Consider education, interning, independent learning, or volunteering to reinforce those areas of weakness.

5. Take Small Steps & Celebrate Accomplishments

The journey is where the growth happens, so celebrate every success. Each new contact, skill, piece of knowledge, or experience will bring you closer to accomplishing your leadership goals. Take a moment to enjoy the process.

6. Keep Moving Toward your Leadership Goals

Immerse yourself in your area of expertise. Stay up to date, follow the news, read publications, and share knowledge that inspires you. If you find yourself at a detour, take Dr. Carol Geffner's advice and improvise. Adaptability is a tremendous asset within shifting organizational landscapes.


Chapter 3: Develop Leadership Skills

A group of people following a leader walking down a mountain at sunset.


Determine your Leadership Style

The first step to becoming a great leader is developing self-awareness. Self-awareness includes an array of touch points: emotional intelligence, awareness of your soft and technical skills, and an understanding of your leadership style.

There are many leadership styles in which one can lead, and each one has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Take our leadership style self-assessment, and learn whether you are a Front-line, Postmodern, Transformational, Servant, Contrarian, or Metamodern leader.


Take the Leadership Style Quiz


Determine your Delegation Style

Delegation is an essential skill for highly efficient leaders. Throughout your career you'll be responsible for the development and growth of many different types of employees. Each employee has a unique nature when it comes to how they work, and your delegation style should reflect your direct report's natural abilities. Take the delegation style self-assessment to discover which one of these four primary styles of delegation is your natural style in 60 seconds, discover how to delegate work to any employee, and start reducing your workload today.

Discover your Delegation Style


9 Tools for Developing Leadership Skills

One axiom of great leaders is the continued development of leadership skills over time. It is imperative that leaders invest in their professional development to adapt to an increasingly global and diverse professional world.

Here are ten easy leadership tools, assessments, and activities to sharpen your leadership and management skills:

  1. Harvard’s Implicit Association Test
  2. Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator
  3. The IHHP Emotional Intelligence (EQ) Assessment
  4. Princeton MCG Leadership Blind Spot Assessment
  5. The IHHP Performing Under Pressure Assessment
  6. Lynda Personal Effectiveness Course
  7. CliftonStrengths 34
  8. MindTools Leadership Skills Assessment
  9. Optimal Thinking Leadership Assessment

Perhaps the most significant benefit of routinely taking these self-assessments is that you're disciplining yourself to ask the hard questions and practicing self-reflection. The more you discover about yourself, the more you'll be able to benefit your organization. Great leaders must be comfortable with being uncomfortable, seeking criticism, and maintaining self-awareness about their shortcomings.


Chapter 4: Choose a Leadership Development Program

Saplings growing from small to big showing how a leaders grows over time.

There are many avenues for preparing to be an executive. If you're a self-motivated person, you might take online courses, read books, or attend leadership conferences. If you prefer 1-on-1 work, you may hire an executive coach or work closely with a mentor. If you prefer an immersive experience that leverages the best aspects of all the aforementioned avenues, you'd likely be interested in an executive-level graduate program the provides 1-on-1 work with faculty, group sessions with leaders across every sector, and guided coursework.

Leadership Development Training: 4 Leadership Training Programs

Studies show that leaders participating in onsite training programs are more likely to get distracted or be pulled away by their daily responsibilities. One great solution to this issue is turning to offsite programs that are designed to fortify future leaders.

1. Graduate Leadership Programs

Graduate programs such as an Executive Master of Leadership (EML), MBA, or an MPA are all viable options to consider for enhancing your leadership skills. Not sure which program to take? Take our Leadership vs. MBA Self-Assessment.

Take the Leadership vs. MBA Self-Assessment

2. Leadership Workshops

Leadership training workshops have come a long way in the past decade. Top-level training workshops move beyond abstract concepts to align with key business objectives and to determine your personal leadership goals and style.

Attending a leadership conference is another great way to gain experience without the everyday distractions of training onsite. It gives you a taste of what leadership training is about without fully committing to an extended program.

3. Online Leadership Courses

Online leadership classes from sources like Lynda and Udemy are made for those with busy schedules. However, while online leadership courses benefit from their easy accessibility, they often lack in rigor and deep, personal transformation.

4. Leadership Mentors

Training with a great mentor is another way to improve your leadership skills. Look for executive coaches who have had success in your field and train with them. Make sure to choose a coach who reflects the type of leadership style you wish to achieve.

What program is right for you: Leadership vs. MBA

An Executive Master of Leadership (EML) and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) are two degrees that help professionals advance their career by providing real-world experience, developing 21st-century skills, and discovering applicable insights for every sector. Because both programs attract similar candidates, choosing between them can be challenging.




Take the Leadership vs. MBA Self-Assessment


Executive Master of Leadership (EML)

Earning a graduate degree in leadership is a perfect option for executives and senior-level employees looking to master soft skills and broaden their capacity to inspire others, while remaining authentic, ethical, and true to their personal values.

If you're five or more years into your career and your professional experience lends itself to leadership, an Executive Master of Leadership degree is your best option to develop a holistic view of leadership through immersive experiences and a collaborative learning environment.

Master of Business Administration (MBA)

Although a leadership program may help you master the art of influencing others, your passion for serving in a hands-on manner and completing projects might be better met by an MBA.

Whether you're fresh out of college or a few years into your career, an MBA can add a much-needed boost to your professional credibility. If you’re still unsure which path to choose, take our quick online assessment to help point you in the right direction.


Chapter 5: Leadership Development Program Outcomes

A group of people celebrating an accomplishment together on the top of a mountain at sunset.

Applying yourself or your organization’s members to sustained leadership development lead to enormous outcomes. Below are the stories of three successful leaders who’ve dedicated themselves to refining their leadership abilities and as a result ended up at the top of their respective fields.


LAPD's First Female SWAT Officer


Jennifer Grasso is the first female SWAT officer with the LAPD. In an interview, she shares that empathy is the most important quality in a leader. She goes on to reflect, “I've always valued a leader that took the time to ask what you thought or what ideas you had. It allows you to become the problem solver, not a drone. As a leader, that's the kind of leadership I hope to foster with future police officers that may work for me.”



USC's Chief of Public Safety

USC Department of Public Safety Chief John Thomas states that listening is the most important attribute a leader can possess.

He tells us, “I make it a priority to just sit in a room with personnel and listen. I don't have an agenda. I don't have much that I want to say to them, but it’s an opportunity to listen to what's happening in their world, hear how my decisions are impacting them, and discover what I can do to make their jobs more efficient and make them more engaged in the workplace.”



Space & Missile Systems Center, Executive Director


Joy White is the Executive Director at the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles Air Force Base. The important skills that allowed her to climb through the ranks as a leader was her upbeat attitude and personality.

White advises new leaders to “do your best and bring an upbeat attitude and willingness to take on whatever challenge. Sometimes you may feel the job is below you, and it may be. You still just step up and respect the people that are doing the job with, you respect everyone around you.” In her view, patience and handling trials with grace is the key to effective leadership.

Although these successful leaders come from vastly different backgrounds, one thing they all certainly can agree on is that honing their leadership skills is a task that requires immense dedication. The experience of these three ambitious individuals is a testament to the fact that with enough time and proper training, strong leadership skills can be cultivated. With these skills in tow, individuals can fill the growing leadership gap and take their communities and organizations to the next level.


Read Student Testimonials


Download a brochure for USC's Executive Master of Leadership degree program.