How to digitalise the personal development part of leadership development

How to digitalise the personal development part of leadership development

Richard Taylor C. Psychol., MBA
01. Nov 2020 | 7 min read

How to digitalise the personal development part of leadership development

Some personal development activities for leaders can be digitalised fully, where everything happens online, some partially where digital tools structure and frame experiences and feedback. This article describes which activities can /cannot be fully digitalised, with examples.


In order to evaluate whether personal development activities for leaders can be digitalised we need first to understand what leadership and personal development are.


Leadership is me

Leadership is individual, something to do with the person, how they behave and how others react to them.


The many definitions of leadership all seem to include setting direction (with and for others) and influencing (others). Some also include reference to decision making (with and for others). The common thread is that leadership is a lot about interacting with other people. Leadership is a social process and the leader is themselves the instrument of leadership.

For the leader, leadership is me, in interaction with others.

Leadership development = personal development

If ‘leadership is me’, leadership development must therefore be a journey of personal development. The leader needs to understand themselves better, their behavioural patterns, strengths and weaknesses, and how others perceive them. The leader needs to release themselves from inappropriate self-imposed constraints, build self-confidence and be brutally honest with themselves.

This isn’t easy. People, including leaders, develop habits and automated responses. These patterns become part of us. They define us. We are barely aware of them. We justify them. They are ‘the right way to be’.

At the same time, we are also curious, continually learning and developing, experimenting with new ideas and approaches.

Personal development is therefore an interaction between critically reflecting on who we are, exploring and challenging our habits and automated responses, with releasing the power of our curiosity and desire to experiment.


This process is fired by two things: rich experiences and feedback. Rich experience gives us lots to chew on and learn from. Feedback from other people triggers reflection, new insights and new behaviours.

Armed with this understanding of leadership and a personal development loop we can now look at whether it can be digitalised.

Experiences can be simulated

When gamers meet e-learning professionals, things can happen. In combining the best from both worlds, the Norwegian company Attensi has created an approach to developing tailor-made simulations.

To engage, the simulation should both look and feel like the participant’s workplace. It should also be gamified to pull the player in. Competing with others, tracking progress, bonus points and all the other elements of gamification motivate the user. All this increases cost but also ensures learning.


In the picture above the manager is in conversation with a team member outside their offices. The manager gets 3 choices at each step in the dialogue with the team member. A model determines which choice is correct. If the model determines that Building Trust is key, the choice that will build most trust is the right one. If the manager chooses the right response, they are rewarded with points.

In relation to the personal development loop described above, the manager enjoys a simulated experience that feels real and gets feedback on their choices immediately. In addition, the feeling of safety derived from being alone in the simulation leads to the manager experimenting freely.

This way of training helps the manager automate the response pattern determined by the model.

The gamified simulation is so engaging that the manager repeats it again and again in order to improve their score (and beat their colleague in the next-door office, or their boss).


The model the training is based on is a gross simplification of reality and the simulation is not anywhere as rich as real life, but the training effect can be powerful. The manager develops their portfolio of appropriate behaviours to choose from in the real world.

If you want to see more on the multitude of digital tools available for developing leaders, please see Digital tools on offer for leadership development.


Adding behavioural options = personal development

Personal development is normally thought of as ‘deeper’ than automating response patterns based on a gamified simulation. We assume we need explanations and answers like ‘Aha! I don’t talk about my feelings because my parents got divorced when I was very young’. Only in admitting that I don’t talk about my feelings, and that it is because of my upbringing, can I start the search for new approaches.

This assumption isn’t correct. Simply doing things differently, seeing that they work and repeating them is personal development. It is like learning a sport. You don’t have to acknowledge that your technique is faulty to change it. You simply experience that doing something differently produces results, and you repeat it.

It is Freud that convinced the world that analysis is necessary for personal development, but that just isn’t true.



Experiences can be framed digitally and drive personal development

In our article How to digitalise experiential learning we show how Ella, the digital coach that helps managers succeed in new roles in 100 days, frames and organises experiential learning. The activities and tools Ella encourages the manager to use can also be seen from a personal development perspective.

Ella breaks the process of transitioning into a new role into 5 steps. In each step Ella suggests a set of activities, many of which are based on interaction with colleagues. Take the tool 3.5 Conviction, designed to increase the team’s commitment to the short-term goals / early wins that will settle the team and manager in their new relationships.


The manager is encouraged to get the team members to fill in the questionnaire, discuss their answers in pairs, then as a team. A short video gives a bit of background and explains the objectives to prepare the manager to run the team session.

For many managers use of the tool will push them a little outside of their comfort zone. None of the questions is particularly challenging in itself but together, discussed in the team, the tool nudges the manager towards a higher level of openness and inclusion than they may be used to.

Running the tool in the team hits all the elements in our model for personal development. The manager, and team, enjoy a rich experience with plenty of opportunity for feedback. They experiment and critically reflect on various team processes.

This tool, like many others in ELLA, not only helps the manager succeed in 100 days, but also facilitates powerful personal development.

If you want to learn more about combining digital and physical experiences please see How to combine digital leadership development activities in learning streams.

If you want to know more about ELLA, and how focus on a manager’s first 100 days in a new role can be the most effective form of leadership development possible, please check out our ebook.

Free ebook about how leadership success is created in a new role

Richard Taylor C. Psychol., MBA

Richard Taylor C. Psychol., MBA

Organisational psychologist with an MBA. Broad top management experience spanning many industries, functions and countries, including 10 years with corporate responsibility for HR. Extensive experience as consultant in private, public and voluntary sectors. A number of board positions in the education and culture sectors. Started career as counsellor for drug and alcohol abusers.

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