Do you know where your future leaders are?

Despite more than a decade’s worth of widely disseminated leadership-gap research from CCL and others, a wide and growing gap remains between the future leadership needs of organizations around the world and their current leadership capabilities.

More than a decade ago, we started to document the gap between the readiness of future organizational leaders and their current leadership skills.

From 2006 to 2008, we surveyed 2,200 leaders from 15 organizations in 3 countries and found that crucial leadership skills necessary to meet future organizational demands were missing. Surveys of 2,339 managers from 24 organizations across 3 countries from 2009 to 2015 found that the leadership gap persisted, and suggested that little process was being made in addressing it.

Other academics and leadership development organizations have documented similar shortcomings.

What’s going on?


Barriers to Bridging the Leadership Gap

To be sure, companies, government agencies, and nonprofits want their future leaders to be prepared. But internal and external forces are blocking or slowing down leader development efforts. Those include:

  1. Outdated ideas about leadership. For many leaders and employees, the term “leader” still suggests an individual whose role is to provide all the answers. However, we know the most effective leaders are those who are skilled at influencing, collaborating, and helping a team or organization discover the answers. Our research has also found that some individuals view leadership roles as requiring tradeoffs with other priorities, such as family. Those perceptions — whether true or not — are likely dissuading many high-potential employees from pursuing leadership development and leadership roles.
  2. Digital disruption. The pace of technological innovation over the last generation has reshaped markets, created new industries, and transformed the way we work. But many organizations and their workers are struggling to keep up. Training and adoption of new technologies — such as those required for remote working and distributed teams — hasn’t kept up. One study a few years ago found that more than 60% of organizations surveyed provided no training for virtual teams or virtual team leaders on how to deal with the challenges of collaborating virtually. And opportunities such as analytics and the promise of Big Data have many organizations scrambling to understand what talent and skills they’ll need to succeed in the future.
  3. Flatter organizations and more dynamic environments. In our faster-moving economy, rigid hierarchical organizational charts have given way to flatter, more agile structures. While this helps companies respond faster to customer needs and changing markets, it has also eliminated the traditional “move up the ladder” leadership development path. Now lateral movement — perhaps to a different geographic or functional area — is required for individuals who want to become leaders. Mapping out these lateral-and-upward career paths is tough for individuals and organizations.
  4. Intense competition for top talent and higher turnover. The days of a 30- or 40-year career with a single organization are long gone. Organizations find themselves focused on competing with other organizations to attract and retain talent. In addition, as more workers reach retirement age, organizations may be challenged to identify new potential leaders and build a leadership pipeline.
  5. Misaligned systems for measuring and rewarding work performance. Old ways of evaluating employees and rewarding them don’t make much sense when career growth requires lateral movement and employees may switch from one employer to another every few years. Furthermore, organizations may be investing in outdated practices that contribute to the leadership gap and also fail to align with organizational goals and strategies.


The Shape of Today’s Leadership Gap

So how has the leadership gap changed and grown over the last decade?

In our research, we identified 9 leadership competencies that were weak or missing. These represent both a gap between current leadership needs and skills as well as future leadership needs and current skills:

  • Managing change
  • Inspiring commitment
  • Leading employees
  • Taking initiative
  • Building collaborative relationships
  • Having a strategic perspective
  • Knowing strategic planning
  • Embracing participative management
  • Being a quick learner

In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a 10th crucial leadership competency grow in importance — career management is now also critical. Current and future leaders can no longer rely on their employers to guide and manage their careers. But rather, they need to be able to do so on their own.

So where does all this leave us?

Organizations that want to ensure they have the leaders they’ll need (and won’t have a leadership gap) must take leadership development into their own hands. They need to be deliberative and strategic in defining their goals and strategies, and understand the challenges to achieving those goals.

Those challenges, in turn, should inform decisions about what leadership competencies the organization requires. With those established, employers can develop leadership development programs, talent management strategies, and leadership pipelines they need to nurture and grow future leaders.

These things are, unfortunately, harder than simply going out and hiring the next hotshot high-potential manager or implementing new collaboration software. Leadership development can be messy and challenging, just like the environments our organizations operate in.

But facing those messy challenges is the only way to bridge the leadership gap and ensure your organization survives and thrives.


To learn more about what the leadership gap looks like, download our white paper “The Leadership Gap: What You Need, And Still Don’t Have, When It Comes To Leadership Talent.”

4 thoughts on “Bridging the Leadership Gap: Are We Any Closer?

  1. Managers need to cross-train their teams in order to prepare them to take over if a colleague retires and be adaptable with changes to the organization.

  2. Joel S says:

    The link to the white paper and survey does not seem to work? Please advise.

    1. Lauren McSwain-Starrett says:

      Can you try again? We double-checked the link and it worked for us!

  3. I am wondering as I read the article, did your research come to a conclusion on how to resolve the problem. I have been speaking, training and coaching Servant Leadership principles and practices. In my experience, I have seen some of these issues changed though proper leadership – caring, value-the-employee mentoring and coaching as well as training on how to change the leadership of the past to SL practices.

    Thank you for the article. I downloaded the White Paper for future reference.

    Keep the Leadership Quest Alive!

    David McCuistion
    VOL Leadership

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