Your Guide to the Career Paths You Can Take with a Degree in Organizational Leadership

Written by Scott Wilson

organizational leadership jobs

In many ways, history is the history of leadership.

Crack open any history book and you’ll see the names… Churchill, Lincoln, Kennedy. Some eras are even named after their leaders—the Elizabethan and Victorian periods, for example. Even stories of religion and fiction tend to be dominated by leadership roles—Moses, leading his people out of Egypt, or Arthur, unifying a great kingdom that probably never existed.

And when you think of great political, social, and business personalities, chances are you will come up with names like Teddy Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Junior, and Jack Welch. They are the ones who saw that greatness could be achieved, stepped up, and inspired others to help them create it.

But the history books often have it wrong when it comes to how those leaders were effective.

Great leadership isn’t a matter of personality and strength; it’s an expression of empathy and understanding.

Becoming a great leader is a new and different process today. You’re not going to be pulling a sword from a stone or transcribing anything from a burning bush you run across in the wilderness.

Strong organizational leadership takes qualities like empathy, curiosity, and vision. And it takes the right education to cultivate those qualities and learn how to apply them to make great things happen.

That education comes with a degree in organizational leadership.

How Organizational Leadership Fills a Need in Every Part of Society

fills every needAll organizations in every kind of industry, government, or non-profit field need leaders. Someone has to look ahead, see the big picture, make the audacious plans, and inspire the troops to get the job done. Organizational leadership is the study and discipline of the processes that make up that kind of influence.

With the complexity of modern industry, it’s not unusual for managers to devote the larger part of their formal education to understanding their profession. Whether it’s in pediatric oncology or catalytic converter manufacturing, there can be a lot of knowledge to absorb and expertise to cultivate just to get the job done.

Industry expertise is never enough. Amazing and inspirational leaders have to become experts in personal relationships as well.

Leadership training usually receives pretty short shrift in most professional programs, however. It’s certainly not taught to the level of expertise that businesses today really require.

And complicating matters even further is the fact that genuine, visionary leadership doesn’t just come with classroom education. Experience and practice are just as important.

Organizational leadership degrees and certificates are the academic answer to all those challenges. With both extensive classroom investigation of the history and processes that characterize great leadership, as well as practical training and lessons drawn from your own experiences, a formal organizational leadership education can hone your abilities to lead and inspire.

What Kinds of Jobs Can a Degree in Organizational Leadership Lead To?

new mindset, new rulesThe kinds of careers that a degree in organizational leadership can lead you into exist in any industry and every kind of specialty. It’s really impossible to generalize about the sort of roles you can fill. Do you want to be a Steve Jobs-style technology visionary, building a start-up with the next insanely great idea and it into a kind of industry that doesn’t even exist yet? Do you want to become a titan of industry and rise to dominate your corner of the Fortune 50?

Part of the draw of organizational leadership training is that it builds people who can go out and define their own roles.

Or maybe you would just be happy rising to the top of your accounting department in a mid-sized manufacturing company, getting the best and most efficient performance out of your team along the way.

Organizational leadership can give you a big boost into any of those roles and more. The only thing they have in common in terms of day-to-day tasks is the essence of the leadership role:

If there is one sure thing about leadership roles, it’s that they will always exist, and people with organizational leadership training will always be among the top candidates for those jobs.

What Salary Should You Expect in an Organizational Leadership Career?

what salary should you expectIn the same way you can’t nail down any particular job description for leaders who have taken the time to earn an OL degree, it’s tough to say what kind of salaries they can earn.

It is safe to say, at least, that no matter what role you choose, you’ll find yourself working in the upper percentage of earners for that industry and position. Leaders are valuable in every organization—their compensation reflects that value.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks the salaries and job prospects of different careers in the United States. Although it’s tough to pick just one that represents the path for organizational leadership graduates, if you did, it might be that of Top Executives.

Extending across industries, this is a non-specific kind of role that covers most chief executives and high-level leaders in business. Their job is to develop strategies and come up with policies to help organizations reach their goals—the basis of organizational leadership in a nutshell.

For 2021, the median salary for top executives was $98,980 per year according to BLS. The top ten percent of the field, with the most experience and training, broke the top line of BLS estimates, making more than $208,000 per year.

That $208,000 level is where BLS just stops counting; many top organizational leaders pull down millions of dollars each year. And that’s just baseline salary. At the highest levels of executive leadership, compensation also comes through stock grants and incentive bonuses, added even more to the pile.

The Straight Line Between Organizational Leadership Training and the Skills You Need on the Job

women's leadership teamThe foundations of your leadership education will come through a core set of classes and experiential learning opportunities. In many programs, you can tailor these to your own interests through electives. In other cases, specialized concentrations will focus you on other elements of OL that may be more important in some industries than others.

In every case, you’ll get a strong core education in subjects such as:

Strategic Communication – Communicating clearly may be the most important role of an organizational leader. No matter what other qualities or insights you have, if you can’t get them across to people, at the right time, in the right way, all your plans are worthless. So every OL degree prioritizes classes in strategic communication. These give you the tools, techniques, and timing to ensure that your visions have a big splash.

Project Management – The day-to-day function of leadership is essentially one of project management, so these classes prove critical. No matter what initiatives you give your teams to work on, someone has to keep track of how it’s going, make sure the right resources are allocated, and deal with the inevitable problems and changes that come up. Project management is a discipline that comes with all the right tools and techniques for those tasks.

Analytics and Performance Management – Organizational leaders in all fields have to learn to read their industry and their team. So degrees in the field include coursework in using analytical tools to evaluate both individuals and the organization as a whole. You’ll learn how to use data in your planning and in creating actionable, achievable steps for your employees.

Negotiation and Conflict Resolution – It’s always the hardest problems that rise to the level of the leader. Things people can work out themselves never make it to your desk. So there is inherent conflict involved with leadership roles, and coursework in how to negotiate and resolve conflicts quickly and effectively is a must-have with these degrees.

chess leadership concept

Particularly at more advanced degree levels, you’ll also find that experiential learning is part of the curriculum in OL degrees. With internships or practicum placements at actual businesses or agencies in your field, you’ll get a chance to put theory into practice. More importantly, you’ll be mentored and supervised by actual leaders who can pass along the valuable lessons of their trade.

Organizational Leadership Preparation and Advancement for Leaders at Every Stage of Their Careers

It’s true that organizational leadership is a function that can happen at every level in modern businesses and government. One of the lessons of the field is to find, trust, and support the talented junior leaders in your org.

But it’s also true that most of the responsibility of leadership falls on the shoulders of individuals in more senior positions. So most organizational leadership programs are found at the bachelor’s level and higher.

While all these programs offer the same core coursework, they have different goals and levels of detail. They may also have different implications for achieving your leadership goals in different types of careers.

In highly technical fields like engineering or public health, you will have to earn a bachelor’s degree in your specialty for professional reasons. An organizational leadership degree will probably have to happen at the master’s level or higher.

Finally, both the costs and the positions they qualify you for are different. All cost data is from the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), presented as the total estimated cost of tuition and fees for the program.

Bachelor’s Degrees in Organizational Leadership

Learning Organizational Leadership Specific To Different Fields May Come Through Different Degrees

nurse leader in groupNot all OL training comes in degrees or certificates that have organizational leadership in the title. Today, most programs that deliver some form of leadership training tap into at least some of the findings and guidelines of organizational leadership.

Just as organizational leadership degrees can offer specializations in different fields, you’ll also find that majors in those fields may offer OL concentrations.

The difference is mostly a matter of emphasis; an OL major will put leadership education first and foremost, with a side of your focus area. A major in that area with a concentration in OL will deliver most coursework in the major area, with a handful of courses teaching organizational leadership.

Either of these choices can be the right one based on your personal preferences or career plan. In some cases, it’s an easy choice—in nursing, for example, for professional reasons almost all master’s degrees are pursued as a Master of Science in Nursing, with organizational leadership or nursing leadership added as a concentration. Similarly, in education, a hotbed of organizational leadership studies, a Master of Education in organizational leadership is the clearest choice.

Choosing the Right School for Your Organizational Leadership Education

seminarDeciding on a degree level in organizational leadership is only the first decision you must make. Once you pick that path, you’ll also have to find the right school where to earn it.

The constellation of colleges available to you may also be determined in part by your particular profession. An education professional will focus their list on schools of education; a nurse won’t spend time considering even the most highly respected business school.

But there are some things that all good schools offering organizational leadership programs should offer, regardless of their field. Factors you should consider when evaluating them will include:

In some cases, you can get an inside look at the quality of organizational leadership training at a school by looking at their specialty accreditation status.

Specialty accreditation is a process that takes all the elements above and more, looks at them through the lens of a particular profession, and offers an objective check on quality and content. Not all OL programs are eligible for specialty accreditation. But for those that are, in fields ranging from business to nursing to public health, it’s another sign of quality.

Why Online Organizational Leadership Degrees Are Increasingly the Choice for Students From Every Field

online learning from homeMany organizational leadership degrees and certificates today are available not only in traditional, on-campus studies, but through remote online education.

The world of online classrooms has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. First driven by the expansion of high-speed internet service, and then by the shuttering of many traditional campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic, remote studies have achieved a level of polish and acceptance that make them the full equal of traditional programs.

They also come with many advantages that you won’t find in an on-campus program. For starters, you don’t have to actually be anywhere near campus! The full menu of online programs become an option no matter where you live, without the disruption of relocation. That makes it easier for you to find the right specialties and the right school to fit your needs.

It also means that you can live somewhere low-cost while attending an elite school in a high-cost area. That opens up options you might not otherwise be able to afford.

Most online programs are also conducted asynchronously. That means you don’t have fixed hours for attending class. You can stream your lectures after midnight; update your homework at the breakfast table; catch up with a class project in an online chat session on your lunch hour.

That sort of flexibility gives you the option of keeping your commitments at work or with your family without missing a beat. And that means your personal situation, particularly if you are older and exploring more advanced degrees, won’t keep you from getting the leadership training you need.

What Can You Do With an Organizational Degree?

Although all kinds of institutions in all sorts of industries need leadership, and benefit from strong organizational leadership, that doesn’t mean that the processes and mechanisms are all the same. You’ll find leadership in a multinational sales organization a very different experience from leading an urban non-profit childcare center. The themes and styles of the jobs will be empathetic, inspired, and systematic—but the actual mechanics can be night and day.

Organizational leadership degrees come with many different concentration options, with coursework and experiences focused on the particular challenges and techniques for leading in different industries.

In some cases, these different programs are a basic riff on the core, business-oriented organizational leadership degrees, offered predominantly by business schools with a few electives thrown in. In other cases, they are highly focused professional degrees, like a Master of Science in Nursing with an emphasis in Nursing Leadership, with very specific classes aimed at preparing nursing leaders for a healthcare environment.

Some of the most popular specializations are well worth exploring in more detail.

As important as the accounting department is in modern business and government organizations, accountants sometimes have trouble getting a seat at the table when it comes to making big decisions. Getting genuine organizational leadership training alongside your accounting skills can make you a formidable player in all types of accounting roles, in any industry.

OL in the business world is a competitive advantage for companies that do it well. In an era where industries change overnight and expert staff are the biggest asset, organizational leadership degrees specific to the business environment offer you the tools to take on the market.

Strong leadership in criminal justice today isn’t optional—it’s a necessity for the safety and security of our society. With many challenges facing the field, from bail reform to mass shootings, an organizational leadership degree in this field equips officials at every rank with the skills needed to boost morale, engage with the community, and make American life safer and more secure.

The education world has gone in big on organizational leadership skills. Education degrees in organizational leadership offer interdisciplinary instruction in achieving lasting academic success through forging partnerships in the community and building harmony in the academy.

Entrepreneurs often have nothing but an idea in mind when they get started. Organizational leadership degrees in entrepreneurship give these creative souls the tools to raise funds, rally support, and build the teams that can actually achieve those big dreams.

All leaders are invested in keeping their team safe and healthy and running organizations ethically. But professionals in the field of EHS make health and safety job number one. That requires making a strong stand against corporate expediency and vested interests. Organizational leadership training gives you the chops to make the right decisions and make them stick when lives are on the line.

With human capital becoming one of the most important corporate assets, human resource management has become a role where strong leadership is a game changer. Organizational leadership specializations in human resource management bring the strategic and inspirational abilities you need to be a key player in HR in your organization.

Not all organizations have good leaders already on the payroll. And not all of them need specific kinds of leadership expertise full-time. That creates a thriving market for management consultants with organizational leadership skills. A degree in this specialization can drop you into that fast-paced, high-stakes, high-paying world.

Organizational leadership training has a lot to offer public relations professionals. PR takes all the same kind of strategic communications and interpersonal skills as leadership in any setting, but the stakes are higher when you’re handling outside media and the public. A degree that combines both fields maximizes your shot at success in PR for any field.

Everyone in the world has developed a new perspective on the importance of strong public health administration leadership over the past few years. Organizational leadership degrees in public health administration can help you make a difference in the next big pandemic or disease threat.

With high levels of expertise, advanced training, and high turnover, nursing is an area that is notoriously tough for leaders. But putting organizational leadership specializations together with advanced degrees in nursing, like the MSN (Master of Science in Nursing) or DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) puts your leadership skills on par with your nursing expertise to get the job done.

An organizational leadership emphasis in healthcare administration offers a specific focus on the hard work of bringing together many different healthcare disciplines under one roof. With challenges ranging from staffing to new treatment technologies to high costs confronting healthcare executives, leadership training like this will be the key to a healthy future.

Leaders in restaurants, hotels, resorts, and other hospitality businesses usually work their way up without the benefit of a lot of formal education. But leadership is an important skill in an industry in flux, where job openings have skyrocketed and the labor force is thin. As demand climbs again for tourism and leisure, strong leadership is going to be a must-have skill for hospitality executives.

Leadership challenges don’t get any harder than multinational organizational leadership. If you thought getting accounting and legal to sit down together and play nice was tough, that’s nothing compared to putting your Indian software team into full alignment with your Norwegian graphic design pros. A specialized education in international business leadership can teach you how to make it happen.


It’s a characteristic of lawyers to take charge and forge new paths with their advanced knowledge and critical thinking skills. But when it comes to being a leader, you need more than just sharp legal logic and excellent communication abilities. Organizational leadership degrees aimed at legal professionals can enable lawyers, paralegals, and even judges to build tight-knit legal teams to take on any court challenge.

Public administrators face challenges from both inside their agencies and from the public at large. An organizational leadership emphasis in public administration offers the kind of relationship-building and negotiating tools to help thread the needle in public service.

High-tech offers a fast-changing landscape and an employee population that can be, at the least, eccentric. Putting together a visionary technology organization to make the future a reality gets easier with a technology focus in organizational leadership.

In the world of non-profits, leadership can be everything. With few resources to draw on but world-changing missions to accomplish, an organizational leadership specialization in this field can help you make all the difference in building the right team, making the right partnerships, and fulfilling the needs of people and communities.

Organizational leadership degrees for marketing professionals combine the sort of creative and communications training you need for dealing with the public with the strategic and interpersonal skills needed to keep a marketing team ticking.

The world of finance comes with a lot of rules and numbers, but not much advice on leading people. An organizational leadership program with a finance specialization fills in the gaps to keep your team of accountants or traders working toward the same goals.

female chief engineer

A logistics focus in organizational management helps bridge the cultural gaps in international or even inter-regional supply chains. The appreciation for individuals and the motivational aspects of OL hand you new tools to keep the trains running on time.

The big engineering projects of the 21st Century face new challenges in climate, materials, and technology. But organizational leadership studies help construction and engineering leaders overcome the timeless challenge of projects everywhere: keeping a strong team together and motivated. 

There are few areas where strong leadership will be more critical in the coming decades than in the field of sustainability. With resource shortages and disruptions to both the climate and the economy becoming more frequent and more severe, sustainability may become the single most critical function for both business and government agencies. Organizational leadership training helps you make the hard choices the planet needs.

Great sports leaders are celebrated in modern society, but the pressures to deliver both victory and profits are immense. There is a lot of crossover between traditional coaching techniques and the ideas of organizational leadership. That’s exactly what organizational leadership degrees in sports management bring together to help both coaches and executives achieve their goals.

2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Top Executives reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed December 2022.

Organizational Leadership Degrees By State