In progress Uncomfortable but Learning: The Role of Challenging Experience in Accelerating Leadership Development



Leadership development is a high priority for most organizations today. Much resources have been invested in training and development programs aimed at producing more effective, high performing leaders. Gaining status as a prevalent approach to developing leaders is the notion of experiential learning—which involves individuals going through challenging situations or taking on difficult tasks that presumably enable them to enhance their leadership capacities. Despite its popularity in practice, there is very little research on experience-driven leadership development. The goal of this dissertation is, therefore, to better understand whether, how, and when experiences, particularly challenging and uncomfortable ones, contribute to learning and development of leaders. It does this by, first, utilizing inductive method to address the questions of what uncomfortable experiences are, and how leaders navigate through these experiences and learn from them. With the use of relatively new data collection method, this dissertation also explores the role of emotion as one possible mechanism through which uncomfortable experience may impact developmental outcomes. In addition, this dissertation also employs experimental designs to test the boundary conditions of the effect of challenging, uncomfortable experience. In sum, this dissertation contributes to the nascent but emerging field of leadership development, specifically by examining and unpacking this ‘uncomfortable but learning’ phenomenon. By doing so, it also provides practical insights for organizations, practitioners and business schools alike to develop better leadership development programs.


leadership development, adult development, learning from experience, training, mindset, behavioral change, self-perspective, emotion, adaptability

Time frame

2016 - 2020


In this project we want to develop a better understanding of authentic or experiential approaches to leadership development (e.g., mindfulness training, outdoor expeditions, culture shocks, horse coaching, near-death meditation exercises, expressive drawing, ... ). While increasingly popular, little is known about whether, how, and when these programs work. This is unfortunate as practitioners (managers, trainers, participants) seem to be split about these programs in that they either see great value in it (love it) or seriously doubt its effects and even expect negative results (hate it). This negative or positive attitude is problematic as in both cases it may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who value it, typically endorse it because the personal benefits they have experienced from the training. Often however they have a hard time explicating why this was so beneficial to them. These difficulties in clarifying why these programs work, puts critics (those who question it) on edge and makes them increasingly skeptical about whether these programs are a hoax or not. From an academic perspective, we are neither lovers or haters. We believe there might be value in these programs, but if we are going to provide nuance for both critics and believers, we need to understand not only whether it works but also how and when it works. To that end we need to develop a better understanding of (1) the type of programs used, (2) the theories that offer (counter-)support for these programs, and (3) in-depth studies that investigate the effectiveness of these programs. In providing an answer to the the above goals, we develop a better view of what does and does not work in terms of experiential leadership development. This knowledge will help pracitioners and business schools alike develop better leadership development programs and should help companies in evaluating which developmental programs best suit their needs and organization. While we do not expect that this project will fully be able to tackle this broader research problem and research question, through the steps outlined next we hope to make signficant progress.

Supervisory Team

Dirk van Dierendonck
Professor of Human Resource Management
  • Promotor
Hannes Leroy
  • Copromotor
  • Daily Supervisor