How many times do we attend a leadership development course and become aware of new information, new tools, or learn new ways of addressing an issue and then return to our work place to only fall back into the old same habits?

Let’s face it; we are a results oriented, mission focused culture. The opportunity to employ new methods on leadership and development, effective behaviors, and processes after returning from our leadership meetings is often overcome by not understanding what we learned in the training.

This lack of understanding is often referred to as the leadership theory to practice gap. The theory or way leaders are taught to lead and the way they lead is often very different.

A considerable amount of research has been conducted within the leadership development field to identify issues involved in translating theory into practice. Stigmar (2010) views theory and practice as a contradiction and suggests that theory should provide us context for specific problem solving strategies to close the gap.

It is through teaching and learning that the gap between what leaders learn and what leaders do closes. This is an important concept for course developers and people that conduct training programs to integrate theory and practice for the hope that those being taught recognize the connection.

Align Theory and Practice

Studying the theory to practice gap reveals attempts made to close this gap with the use of ice breakers, leadership experiences, developmental models, and team discussions to help address that theory and practice are mutually dependent and that expertise is only attained when both are developed and realized.  When leaders fail to consider theory and practice together, a risk of thoughtlessly addressing leadership issues exists.

Knowing theory can assist leaders to be more effective.  Furthermore, theory guides and informs practice by addressing other complex issues such as the aim of leadership in general.

Theory and Practice

Leaders are continuously challenged to provide a productive and effective environment for their personnel to work and thrive. With this in mind, let’s explore in detail how leaders can take key leadership concepts and apply them to daily practice.

Though more than twenty years old, Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) provide a useful model that articulates the relationship between theory and practice and offers a progression in how we learn new leadership practices.

Within their model, mentorship with active participants is suggested as a solution to bridge the theory to practice gap.  Ironically, it has been both the research of leadership theory and the practice of leaders that have identified the previous as potential solutions.

Leadership Development Challenges

There are numerous reasons why leaders fall short in applying credible, leadership development skills. Examples include:

  • Leader development courses may be poorly developed
  • Facilitator’s inability to link leadership theory to practice
  • Theories taught do not seem to be applicable to most leadership environments
  • Lack of experience with newer media and technology used to translate leadership concepts to learners
  • Lack of motivation of leaders-in-training to apply newer leadership theories

The major challenges associated with translating theory into practice are leaders’ idealistic tendencies and advancing technology. Leaders need to balance the ideal with the real. Theories tend to be very idealistic and are usually conceptualized based on optimum conditions. This is where the friction of theory to application exists and the impact of human emotion and interaction affects the nature of using a theory holistically.

The challenge that exists is to apply as much of a theory as possible with consideration of real time, environmental factors, and variables.  In regards to the technology challenge, leaders responsible for their organization’s workforce development should have some understanding how people learn before providing for or implementing developmental opportunities.

Use Technology Wisely

Complicating this process is the number of rapidly advancing technologies. With tools that promise to increase engagement, communication, interaction, efficiencies, and learning, leaders may overlook credible educational theory (Tynjälä & Häkkinen, 2005).

It is easy for leaders to make bad choices when lured with promising technology that could result in wasted money, time, or learning opportunities, all the while causing undue frustration (Van Dusen, 1998).


Being knowledgeable of leadership theory and how adults participate in what they have learned will certainly make a difference in the development of our future leaders. This is where integrating leadership and learning theory is especially important to close the theory to practice gap.

In other words, leadership content and how adults learn can assist educators, trainers, and managers to more effectively deliver effective leadership training. Regardless of what the current leadership theories are, leaders should be taught via an appropriate educational theory that best meets the reality that leaders face today.

To get the most out of workforce development efforts and to tap into and use or refine the theories gained while away at school, leaders that balance the ideal with the real, understand learning theory, and utilize the most appropriate technologies will most likely get the most out their employees and organizations.

When there is an effort to close the theory to practice gap though meaningful development, an organization’s growth and success is limitless!

How Can Leadership Training Be Meaningful to You?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Dreyfus, H. L., & Dreyfus, S. E. (1986). Mind over machine: The power of human intuition and expertise in the era of the computer. New York, NY:  The Free Press.
Stigmar, M. (2010). Scholarship of Teaching and Learning When Bridging Theory and Practice in Higher Education. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, 4(2), 1-14.
Tynjälä, P., & Häkkinen, P. (2005). E-learning at work: theoretical underpinnings and pedagogical challenges. Journal of Workplace Learning: 17, 5/6.
Van Dusen, G. (1998). Technology: Higher education’s magic bullet. The NEA Higher Education Journal of Education and Human Development. (Spring) 59-67.

John Plifka
John currently works for the U.S. Army as a Senior Strategic Analyst. He is a PhD candidate at Northcentral University, holds an MS in National Security Studies from the US Army War College and an MPA from Troy University.