Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to address limitations of prevailing approaches to leadership development programmes and make suggestions as to how these might be overcome. These limitations are an outcome of the dominant rational functional approach to leadership development programmes. Based on empirical research, and underpinned by organisational theory, the paper suggests a shift towards a socio-constructivist perspective on design and implementation of leadership development programmes. The explorative study proposes that context and participant differences need to be recognised as factors impacting on the effectiveness of leadership development initiatives. Design/methodology/approach – The paper is based on a review of relevant literature and qualitative data collected using the case study method. The study presented is explorative. Findings – The paper finds that participant interaction with leadership development programmes varies depending on individual and/or contextual factors. Current design logic neither recognises nor utilises such situatedness as programmes develop their linear and unidirectional logic. Designers of programmes underestimate the extent to which programme participants create a context-specific understanding of leadership learning as they interact with the programme. Their personal and organisational context shapes this interaction. A socio-constructivist perspective can provide theoretical foundation for the argument that leadership development programmes can become more effective if context-specific dimensions are recognised as shaping and constraining factors impacting on programme participants. Originality/value – The paper argues that it is time to move away from offering leadership development programmes which emphasise input over interaction. The paper encourages commissioners and designers of leadership programmes to recognise that an overly didactic approach may limit the effectiveness of such programmes.