Earning a Master's in Leadership Online

If you aspire to lead in a senior-level position but first want to hone your skills, an online master's in leadership might help you take your career to the next level. A recent article by the Association for Talent Development stated that the leadership field has shifted to embrace new trends in advanced thinking skills. Companies want leadership professionals who can overcome talent gaps, meet user needs, and instill a vision in their employees.

If you've already completed a bachelor's degree and want to work on the skills mentioned above, a master's in leadership might offer a perfect fit. The following guide focuses on common coursework for this degree, plus salary, job growth potential, and how to fund your education.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master's Degree in Leadership?

Most master's in leadership online students already hold a bachelor's degree and want to pursue graduate education in order to progress their careers. They understand the value provided by a master's degree, both in terms of salary growth and job qualifications. These learners have also decided that a master's degree would benefit them more than professional certification.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Leadership?

Pursuing Specialization

Many master's students take one or two classes related to leadership concepts, but most miss out on a full and comprehensive education on the topic. Students who focus their efforts solely on the discipline of leadership gain specialized knowledge that sets them apart from other job candidates.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Research has shown that master's graduates earn significantly more than professionals with high school diplomas or bachelor's degrees -- an average of $11,232 more per year, according to the Pew Research Center. By completing a master's in leadership online degree, graduates can compete for more advanced roles with better earning potential.

Online Learning Technology

In addition to career advancement and increased earning potential, an online master's in leadership offers numerous ancillary benefits. Online learners engage with the latest communication and learning technologies, which helps them update their technical skills and gain new understandings of how these tools can apply to their leadership practice after graduation.

Prerequisites for Online Leadership Programs

Before considering a master's in leadership online, prospective learners should become familiar with common program requirements.

  • Work Experience: Requirements for work experience vary by school, but many institutions expect at least some prior full-time experience. Georgetown University requires an employer letter of support, while the University of San Diego prefers two or more years of work on a candidate's resume.
  • Exams and Test Scores: Most schools do not require GRE or GMAT scores as long as the applicant meets other requirements. For instance, the University of San Diego waives GMAT requirements for applicants with a 3.0 or higher GPA and sufficient work experience. Norwich University does the same for students with GPAs of 2.75 or higher.
  • Coursework: Master's in leadership online degrees draw students from myriad academic backgrounds, so most programs do not require prerequisites. However, they do commonly require an undergraduate GPA of at least 2.75.
  • Recommendations: Recommendation requirements vary between schools, but most colleges and universities request at least two letters. Many universities mandate that at least one letter come from a current or former supervisor. The other may come from a former professor, colleague, or mentor.
  • Essays: Many master's in leadership online programs require prospective learners to provide a personal objective statement outlining specific interest areas within leadership. Applicants also describe how they hope to use the degree after graduating and why that particular school fits their interests.
  • Interviews: Most institutions do not require interviews, but some students may receive a request to take part in an interview in-person or over the phone for particularly competitive schools.
  • International Students: In addition to proving their eligibility for a U.S. student visa, international learners whose first language is not English must also demonstrate language proficiency through the TOEFL, IELTS, and/or PTE exams.

How Much Can I Make with a Master's Degree in Leadership?

Skilled leaders stand to earn significant salaries and take on challenging, meaningful roles in their companies. According to occupational employment statistics provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), chief executives earn a median annual salary of $183,270. Those in the bottom 10th percentile earn $68,110, while those in the 90th percentile bring home over $208,000 each year. Leaders can't command such high salaries without years of prior experience, and higher education may help them expand their skills and ways of thinking about leadership.

Traditional Careers for MSL's

Career Stats Description

Director of Operations

Median Pay: $100,410

Job Growth: 9%

Also known as a general manager, a company's director of operations plans and executes company strategy by creating policies and best practices. Most work full-time office hours, and many work overtime and/or travel.

Ideal for: Highly-organized production and people managers with broad business understanding.

Health & Safety Manager

Median Pay: $75,900

Job Growth: 8%

Working in a variety of different professional settings, these leadership professionals inspect and review workplaces to ensure they meet safety standards. They also assess whether workplaces need additional investigation, write reports about their findings, create safety procedures, evaluate existing programs, and educate colleagues about safety measurements.

Ideal for: Detail-oriented individuals who enjoy communicating information effectively.

Compensation & Benefits Manager

Median Pay: $119,120

Job Growth: 5%

These managers work with other human resource professionals to create pay and benefits structures, contract and manage outside benefits vendors, develop systems for distribution of pay, maintain compensation budgets, and liaise with other organizational leaders to plan strategically for the future.

Ideal for: Numbers-oriented people who enjoy working with different personality types.

Life Coach or Speaker

Median Pay: $50,743

Job Growth: N/A

Life coaches work individually with clients to help them improve specific aspects of their lives. Some may focus on topics like efficiency and productivity, while others help entrepreneurs develop their businesses. Speakers, meanwhile, translate those same skills and messages to larger audiences.

Ideal for: Insightful professionals who enjoy working with others, identifying issues, and developing solutions.

Non-Traditional Careers for MSL's

Career Stats Description

Training and Development Managers

Median Pay: $108,250

Job Growth: 10%

These managerial professionals identify, develop, and implement staff training and professional development programs in order to grow employee skills and knowledge. They oversee budgets, work with executives to identify needs, and hire training vendors.

Ideal for: Organized individuals who enjoy bringing the best out of others.

Public Relations Manager

Median Pay: $111,280

Job Growth: 10%

Whether working as a consultant or in-house for an organization, public relations managers communicate information about their clients to the public in the form of press releases, news conferences, and media packets. They develop their clients' public personas and work with marketing professionals to streamline those messages.

Ideal for: Creative professionals who enjoy thinking outside the box.

Legislative Director

Median Pay: $71,509

Job Growth: N/A

Legislative directors work in freelance and in-house positions. They identify client advocacy efforts and work on their behalf to encourage favorable legislative outcomes. They maintain good relations with state and federal legislators, and create outreach strategies to benefit their clients.

Ideal for: Strategic negotiators who can navigate politics and think quickly on their feet.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, PayScale, 2017-2018

Paying for an Online Master's in Leadership

As prices for degrees rise each year, paying for an online master's in leadership often requires students to seek outside funding. When considering how to cover these costs, degree seekers should first determine how much they owe. Students should then research scholarships and grants. Some schools offer leadership-specific funding, while others only provide generic scholarships.

Tuition Timelines

Learners can choose from several different timelines when pursuing a master's in leadership online degree. While some students prefer to work while in school, others seek to graduate as quickly as possible. Review the options below to get a better sense of what would work with your schedule.

Part-Time Path

Many working professionals and busy learners choose to take fewer courses in order to maintain their current obligations. Part-time students take longer to graduate, but have more time for other tasks.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Northeastern University
Total Credits Required: 30-46
Online Tuition Cost: $698 per credit
Pace: 6-9 credits / 2-3 classes per semester
Total Semesters: 4-7
Summary: Northeastern's part-time M.S. in leadership requires 30 credits for the basic degree and 46 credits if students want to complete a specialization. Tuition ranges between $20,940 and $32,108, depending on the student's degree path. This school does not require a minimum number of hours per term.

Full-Time Path

Full-time students are usually able to graduate in less than two years. Some full-time programs accommodate working students, while others may prove difficult for professionals with full-time employment.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Norwich University
Total Credits Required: 36 credits
Online Tuition Cost: $704 per credit
Pace: 1 class per 11-week term
Total Semesters: 6 terms
Summary: Full-time students can complete this degree in 18 months by taking one course per term. As of 2018, tuition for this program comes to $25,344 total. Norwich University does not offer a set tuition guarantee, so this price might rise while students move toward a diploma.

Accelerated Path

Accelerated options suit professionals who want to gain credentials as quickly as possible. Learners typically graduate in about one year, but some programs offer even shorter options.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Hebrew Union College
Total Credits Required: 34 credits
Online Tuition Cost: $25,500 per year
Pace: 17 credits per summer
Total Semesters: Two
Summary: Unlike other programs offered throughout the year, HUC's master's in organizational leadership is comprised of two intensive summer semesters. All told, tuition costs $51,000, but several institutional scholarships may lower this number.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants & Scholarships

Scholarships and grants can greatly lower the cost of a degree, making education more accessible for learners without a significant amount of money. Students should investigate opportunities and discuss options with prospective schools.

What to Expect from a Master's Level Online Leadership Program

When deciding to pursue a master's in leadership online degree, most students should plan to spend at least two years in school. These programs help instill an awareness of various leadership skills while also teaching students how to develop their own methods of motivating and overseeing employees. The following few sections detail what to expect from these programs in terms of milestones, common coursework, and technologies.

Major Milestones

  1. Capstone – Final semester

    The capstone requires degree seekers to incorporate all that they learned throughout the program into a comprehensive project. Common examples include work portfolios, creative projects, and case studies.

  2. Internship/Apprenticeship/Job Shadowing – Second year

    This experience allows students to observe leaders in action, ask them questions about their leadership style, and start thinking about how they want to conduct themselves in the workplace.

  3. Thesis Preparation and Defense – Final semester

    Not all degrees require a thesis, but students interested in research and academia often decide to complete one. Theses can be useful when applying to Ph.D. programs or research organizations.

  4. Certificate Preparation – Throughout degree

    Some schools, such as Augsburg University, allow students to earn graduate certificates while simultaneously completing a master's program. Students following this plan must ensure they meet the requirements of both programs.

  5. Intent to Graduate/Completion Confirmation – Final semester

    After meeting all the programmatic requirements, students must signal their intent to graduate, pay any outstanding or new fees, and register for graduation.

  6. Application to Professional School – Final year

    Learners who want to immediately continue on to a second master's or a Ph.D. program must apply while still in school. To do so, they must complete an application, ask their supervisor and/or professors to write recommendation letters, and supply official transcripts.


The sample courses below offer a glimpse into common topics in master's in leadership online programs. Students should check with individual schools to better understand what to expect.

Leadership Models

This course reviews some of the major leadership styles in use today. Learners examine major theories about and outcomes of each model. Students may also engage in role play to gain a first-hand look of how each style works.

Team Leadership

Students in this class consider what it means to lead a diverse team, with special emphasis on understanding personalities, leveraging unique skills, and communicating effectively with each member.

Leadership for Change

Often, leaders need to help their companies change directions, modernize, or correct issues. This class helps learners develop the leadership skills necessary to create change in various professional settings.

Making Decisions as a Leader

This course helps students understand the responsibilities that come with being a leader. Students discuss how to practice self-awareness when making significant organizational decisions.

Social Psychology in Leadership

Students in this class explore some of the subconscious factors that can affect how they make decisions and how others perceive them. Learners focus on body language, social attitudes, preconceived notions, and prejudices.

Requirements to Practice

Unless a student plans to work in an industry that requires discipline-specific certification (e.g. as a school principal or healthcare executive), leadership in and of itself does not require certification. That said, numerous continuing education programs exist to help students build skills after graduating. These credentials may also lead to more senior roles or higher salaries.

  • Executive Certificate in Management and Leadership: MIT offers this certificate to individuals with existing professional experience who want to further develop their skill sets. Applicants choose between four different focus areas and spend 1.5 years completing coursework.
  • Certificate in Change Leadership: Offered by Cornell University's SC Johnson College of Business, this certificate requires six online courses and takes approximately 36 hours to complete. Learners pay $3,600.
  • Certificate in School Management and Leadership: Harvard University's Graduate School of Education and Harvard Business School jointly provide this online program. The certificate requires four courses, and each course costs $399.
  • Executive Certificate in Health Care Leadership & Management: Johns Hopkins' Carey Business School provides this accelerated program, which students can complete in two full weekends of classroom experiences and independent work. The entire program costs $9,800.

Professional Organizations & Resources

Whether still in school or seasoned leaders, workers and students alike can benefit from professional organizations. Members can advance their careers, learn about industry best practices, meet other professionals through networking events, and receive recognition for their work through annual conference awards. These organizations often provide continuing education courses, career services, and job boards, as well. In addition to the options listed below, students should look for school-specific and local associations.

  • International Leadership Association: ILA serves members in more than 70 countries. The association hosts an annual conference, frequent professional development webinars, in-house publications, and various online communities.
  • American Leadership Development Association: ALDA serves thousands of members each year by providing resources, a directory, and a regularly published magazine with insightful articles.
  • The Leadership Development Organization: This professional association offers literature and training on best practices, an annual conference, numerous professional development opportunities, and a community of support.
  • The Center for Association Leadership: ASAE offers executive-level learning opportunities, diversity training programs, resources, and advocacy programs. Members may also participate in the women executives forum and the NextGen summit.
  • Indiana Leadership Association: A regional association, ILA provides annual awards, regional meetings, and networking events to leaders in Indiana.