Leadership Challenge Ladder™ Technical Report

By Ramya Balakrishnan, Stephen Young, Jean Leslie, Cynthia McCauley, & Marian Ruderman
Center for Creative Leadership


The Leadership Challenge Ladder is a framework of leadership challenges developed using recent advances in machine learning. To create this evidence-based framework, we conducted a research study that spanned 11 years (2010-2021) and involved data collected from over 37,000 multi-level leaders working in more than 6,000 organizations. These leaders were asked to identify the three most critical leadership challenges they were currently facing. Utilizing a machine learning algorithm called topic modeling, we constructed five distinct topic models based on the five levels of leadership. Across all levels, we identified a total of 42 challenges that consistently emerged over time, transcending different industries and sectors.

Subsequently, subject matter experts in the leadership development domain qualitatively categorized these 42 challenges into a thematic framework, revealing that leaders routinely encounter three overarching types of challenges throughout their careers: Personal Growth (related to personal shortcomings and aspirations for self-improvement), People and Task Demands (associated with managing individuals and accomplishing work), and Working within a Larger System (dealing with dynamics within organizational and environmental systems).

We developed the LCL framework with the goal of enhancing the return on investment (ROI) of leadership development at all levels and providing organizations with a scalable approach to diagnosing challenges within their own ranks. By administering a 10-minute survey that prompts leaders to describe their current challenges, organizations can compare their leaders’ challenges to those outlined in the LCL. Armed with this information, organizations can focus their leadership development strategies by understanding and addressing their leaders’ most prominent challenges. The Leadership Challenge Ladder stands as a unique offering in the leadership development industry.

This report provides an overview of the research methodology employed by CCL (Center for Creative Leadership) in creating the Leadership Challenge Ladder. It presents a comprehensive account of the process used to develop five distinct leadership challenge topic models, each tailored to different leader levels ranging from individual contributors to the C-suite. Furthermore, it explains how the Leadership Challenge Ladder predicts the distribution of unscored challenge data by leveraging our various challenge topic models. To gain further insights into these topics and how they manifest, we analyzed the proportions of topic challenges based on factors such as gender, sector, industry, job function, and year of challenge. Finally, we outline our approach to comparing an organization’s aggregate challenge data against industry benchmarking norms. This report is intended for scientific autodidacts, data scientists, and individuals who appreciate the application of science in innovative ways.


Balakrishnan, R., Young, S., Leslie, J., McCauley, C., & Ruderman, M. (2023). Leadership Challenge Ladder™ (LCL) Technical Report. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

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