The short answer is ‘it depends who you ask’. In many places, you’ll see the two phrases used almost interchangeably – with leadership development often being used more broadly than executive development.

By using the two terms this way, we’re missing out on what could actually be a useful distinction.

While executives need to lead, not all leaders will become executives. Similarly, there are executive responsibilities that are not leadership responsibilities.

If you need an effective shorthand to tell the two apart, it amounts to developing strategy versus tactics.

Strategies are the big picture, while tactics are a more precise focus on the nitty-gritty.

To be effective, a company needs both. It needs an overarching vision, and it needs people who are capable of implementing that vision.

It helps if some people can do both (i.e. executives with developed leadership skills), but that’s not always what you’re going to find.

Leadership Development

Leadership development often happens outside of university classrooms. It can be done internally in companies, or by specialists brought in from the outside.

Often, it will include tutoring and mentoring. The main focus is on building a cycle where leadership skills are taught, field tested, and then reflected on.

There is also a real focus on finding out how the personality of the leader is considered, and how they deal with specific types of problems.

Often, the idea is to focus on what works, rather than why it does. That’s mainly down to the nature of the teachers, who are often not academic in their background but have learned a great deal of their trade ‘in the field’.

And so, while they have a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t, they don’t necessarily have the numbers or the theory to back it up.

The big problem with leadership development is that qualities vary based on who does the teaching, who does the learning, and how much support there is within the company.

In some companies, the focus is to learn through doing, and the idea that leadership can be developed is waved off as something that doesn’t work.

Executive Development

In order to develop executives, most companies send them back to school. They’ll follow university courses dedicated to theory.

For example, at Stanford, the program tries to teach you to ‘analyze critically, lead confidently, and articulate strategically’.

And though they promise hands-on teaching, the real application only happens when you return to your company after the course and implement it.

Such courses will offer to:

  • Improve things like analytics, so that business leaders can have a more holistic approach to the companies that they’re working in and thereby make better executive decisions.
  • Gain a better understanding and awareness of one’s leadership style and how others perceive it.
  • Enhance your understanding of the critical interface between execution issues and internal and external strategic challenges to the organization.
  • Apply design thinking principles to solve business problems. Learn effective ways of designing teams, business operations, change management initiatives, and organizational structures and culture.
  • Introduction to and comprehensive explanation of the relevant psychological principles needed to create cohesive teams and a beneficial corporate structure to boost performance, motivation and results.
  • Work on improving one’s interpersonal skills so that it becomes easier to communicate ideas, objectives, goals and ambitions.
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All of these are often supported by theoretical findings in the field.

In other words, these courses are quite theoretical.  Of course, executive development is only effective if the people involved have the capacity to take what they learn and apply it in the field. Not everybody can do that.

For that reason, executive development is generally restricted to a small group of people.

They’re Taught the Wrong Way Around

What’s interesting is that while people get enrolled in leadership development quite early on, executive development often takes a lot longer.

Though that makes sense on a financial level, on a strategic level that does leave something to be desire.

After all, we want people to first know why they do something and only then, to learn how to do it.

This way, they will find it easier to incorporate the lessons of ‘how’ as they’ll have the theoretical framework to answer their questions and understand the reasons.

By doing it backwards, you’re not giving people the framework and you’re also making it likely that by the time they actually receive the underlying theoretical basis for why they do things, the way they’re doing things have been too baked in to be easily changed.

In effect, that’s putting the cart in front of the horse and leads to problems in human translation.

In a Perfect World

In a perfect world, the right business leaders would follow both of these types of development at the same time so that they might reinforce each other, with the theoretical and the practical getting taught hand in hand.

Of course, identifying who those business leaders would be might be difficult.

After all, there’s many different types of leaders out there, and we can’t know before hand which will be effective in what situation.

And trying to send every potential leader to an executive program would become prohibitively expensive.

A better idea would be for companies to have trainers who have gone through executive development courses instead.

This way, they’ll be capable of giving a much better idea of the theoretical underpinnings to many of the leadership classes they would be teaching.

Even better, if trainers were to follow executive development courses before they taught leadership at a company or business, then the question of whether executive development and leadership development are two different things would become moot, as we’d be bringing the two different forms of development closer together.

And that would no doubt be good for everybody involved.

How Do You Differ Between Executive Development and Leadership Development?

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

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Margaret Reid
Margaret Reid is a freelance writer who is seeking to discover new ways for personal and professional growth. Currently she's working at The Word Point and trying to improve herself in the blogging career. Margaret is an experienced and self-driven specialist who cannot imagine her life without writing.