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Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to investigate why managerial leaders engage in leader self-development (SD) vis-à-vis China’s transition process and what domains of leadership competencies are enhanced. It aims to investigate leader SD as an interaction between self-regulation and the confluence of multiple contexts experienced simultaneously by these managerial leaders within China’s transition. Design/methodology/approach – This paper adopts a two-phase exploratory sequential mixed-method design. The absence of empirical research on leader SD in China led to a qualitative approach in the initial stage. Focus groups were first conducted to establish the relevance of the focal construct in a holistic and elaborative way. In-depth interviews were then undertaken to capture the richness of the phenomenon through meaningful contextualization and to identify themes as representative of issues faced by participants. Seven themes emerged from this process, which, through consultation with the relevant literature, were operationalized in the second stage to generate a survey for hypothesis testing. Findings – The combination of insights from qualitative and quantitative studies highlights the dynamic and interactive nature of leader SD as a product of contextual and personal influences in China. The influential mechanisms connecting personal and contextual enablers and SD are in the cognitive processing of developmental needs and personal responsibility. Chinese managerial leaders who take the initiative to assess their own developmental needs and assume responsibility for their development are more likely to undertake SD. The developmental activities focus primarily on technical leadership competencies. Research limitations/implications – A competency perspective to development may not address fully complexities involved in leader development. Also developing leadership competencies is an ongoing process. Due to limited time and fund, this paper did not take a time perspective to investigate both the immediate and long-term outcomes of leader SD. Practical implications – SD is an emerging strategy that has the potential to address the shortage of managerial leadership competencies. The analysis of the self-regulatory process explains the mediating dynamism underlying different domains of leader SD. Recruitment focusing on people with a relatively higher degree of self-regulation thus increases the potential for organizations to staff themselves with employees aware of, and prepared for, SD organization would like to take place. It is also advisable that organizations make efforts to create a learning environment in general. Originality/value – This mixed-method approach provides a multi-layered investigation that ultimately adds rigor and relevance to the research findings. It is this analysis of the complex web of economic, social and cultural contexts existing in China, and applying them to social cognitive theory as an explanatory platform, that underpins the originality of the study.