Leadership training shouldn’t just be for top performers

Dr. Navio Kwok | 24 January 2022

Those who seemingly did not possess the motivation to learn or lead did in actuality benefit from investments in leadership development, and when considered in absolute terms, actually benefited the most from this experience.

Originally featured in Harvard Business Review, co-authored with Winny Shen, Associate Professor of Organization Studies at the Schulich School of Business.

Senior leaders often receive most of their leadership training during the final chapters of their careers, when they have the most experience. Organizations also go to great lengths to conduct annual performance and talent reviews to identify high-performers and high-potentials (HiPos) and offer them ample development. In both scenarios, the individuals who receive the most development are also the ones who arguably need it the least. We call this the leadership development paradox.

The business case for investing in the “best” given limited organizational resources appears straightforward: Individuals who have a demonstrated track record of success deserve to be recognized, right? They also seem like sure bets who will benefit the most from development opportunities because they have the requisite experience and capabilities to grow.

A by-product of the leadership development paradox is that the “rest” are typically excluded from those opportunities, creating disparities and perceived inequities within organizations.

longstanding finding of health and policy research is that unequal societies with large gaps between the haves and have-nots have a poorer quality of life. Likewise, organizations with larger gaps between those who do and do not receive development can also be susceptible to organizational disparity.

Additionally, this strategy can violate employees’ expectations. Workers generally believe that organizations have an obligation to provide employees with opportunities for development over the span of their tenure. Failing to fulfill these expectations can ultimately lead to negative consequences, such as poorer work performance, decreased commitment to the organization, and greater intentions to quit.

Here are three common but potentially problematic assumptions that underlie the leadership development paradox and strategies for leaders to overcome those blind spots.

Assumption #1: Success Is the Result of Individual Effort

People tend to believe that individual effort and hard work leads to success. By this token, the reason individuals are not successful is because they don’t have a strong work ethic. But consider an observation made by Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley back in the mid-1980s and described by Malcom Gladwell in Outliers: Among any elite group of hockey players, a disproportionate number of athletes will have been born closer to the beginning of the year. Why is that?

As a result of a January 1 cut-off for age-class hockey in Canada, a child who turns 10 on January 2 could be playing alongside someone who won’t turn 10 for another year; those 12 little months make a big physical difference at that age. Consequently, while both children can put in a similar effort, the older child is more likely to be chosen for all-star teams and receive more playing time and better coaching — a cumulative advantage over time that paves the road to the big leagues.

All employees enter organizations with their unique combination of capabilities and experiences, some of which may not be under their direct control, that contribute to differing performance and productivity levels. Over time, high-performing individuals accumulate an advantage: They’re more likely to be invited to leadership development programs, flagged as HiPos, and promoted to more senior and high-exposure roles.

The consequence for the remaining employees is a cumulative disadvantage, where the low- or mid-performing individuals are more likely to remain at, or decline from, their current performance because they’re excluded from development programs that could improve their skills and capabilities, leading to fewer opportunities for career advancement.

One way to address this is to offer training support for all employees with flexible performance criteria for eligibility. Consider global software company Adobe’s Learning Fund: In support of continuing education and professional development, all “employees who are in good performance standing” are eligible for an annual reimbursement up to $10,000 USD for academic degrees and other certifications and $1,000 USD for short-term learning opportunities. Although employee performance is still the focal point of decision making, Adobe’s Learning Fund does not disproportionately favor the highest performers.

Assumption #2: Past Performance Predicts Future Performance

fundamental tenet of psychology is that our past behavior predicts future behavior. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that organizations reward current high performers with further development opportunities, with the assumption that these individuals will continue to perform well in the future. However, consider the following two scenarios, which illustrate some pitfalls of this assumption.

First is the Peter Principle: Within any hierarchy, such as those found in organizations, individuals tend to rise to their level of incompetence. When an employee performs well in a role, they’re often promoted into a more complex one. This performance-promotion cycle repeats until eventually, the employee is promoted into a final role in which they can no longer perform well. Thus, when promotions are awarded based on past performance alone, every role in an organization will tend to eventually be occupied by someone who may struggle to perform in it at a high level.

Second is the disruption to the future of work. In the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs Report, they estimate that by 2025, automation and technological advancements will displace 85 million jobs and also create 97 million new ones. As a result, organizations are increasingly faced with the challenge of identifying and developing individuals for as-yet undefined roles, making employees’ performance in their current role only one piece of a larger puzzle when predicting their performance in a possible future role.

One approach to addressing this blind spot is to assess attributes that indicate an individual has the potential to develop for future organizational needs instead of centering decisions solely on their current performance. Relevant indicators include their learning agility, which reflects a willingness and ability to learn and perform new competencies, and typical intellectual engagement, which reflects a broad desire to engage and understand the world. Self-report instruments have been developed to assess these characteristics, but they can also be gauged via interviews or observations — such as by focusing on when individuals last acquired a new skill and were able to apply it to a novel situation, or how absorbed they become when devoting time to their interests and hobbies.

More broadly, organizations need to have robust assessment practices in place to ensure they’re investing in the right people for development, such as scientifically valid and reliable instruments, an understanding of the organizational and business context, and qualified professionals to interpret assessment results. Although these recommendations are not new, evidence indicates many organizations currently fall short. In a benchmark study that examined 84 companies, only about one in fourwere using assessment methods to identify HiPos.

Assumption #3: Motivated Employees Benefit Most from Development

When organizations send employees to leadership development programs, their ultimate aim is to have them perform better than before. To this end, managers typically select the individuals they believe are most likely to benefit from training — those who are generally motivated to learn or intrinsically interested in leading and therefore considered “developmentally ready.” Consequently, individuals who have the most room to grow — that is, the ones with the most “developmental need” — are often excluded from those opportunities.

But what happens when we include those individuals in these training opportunities? How much would they get out of formal leadership training?

Our recent paper published in The Leadership Quarterly explored these questions. We followed 240 cadets in the Royal Canadian Air Cadet Program undergoing an intensive and continuous six-week leadership development course centered on enhancing their leadership capabilities. Similar to leadership development offered to employees in many business organizations, this course was delivered face to face, included theory and practice-based methods, and provided assessments and feedback.

Over the training period, we tracked participants’ change in leader efficacy — that is, their confidence in leading others. We assessed this outcome because to be effective leaders, individuals need to be confident in their leadership capabilities, and prior research has found that leader efficacy predicts leadership performance.

We found that the individuals with the greatest “developmental need” — those who are generally less motivated to learn or intrinsically interested in leading — experienced over twice as much growth in their leadership confidence than those who were most “developmentally ready.” By the end of training, the gap in leadership confidence between these two groups reduced by 35%. So, those who seemingly did not possess the motivation to learn or lead did in actuality benefit from investments in leadership development, and when considered in absolute terms, actually benefited the most from this experience.

Therefore, one method for leaders to overcome this blind spot is to select employees one for one into development programs — in other words, for every single developmentally ready employee who’s chosen for a development program, include an employee with developmental need. This ensures that the leadership competency gap between these two sets of individuals does not grow and contributes to curbing organizational disparity. Although the specific programs may not be the same for these two groups, as their developmental goals may differ, they both still receive development, which ensures organizations have a stronger bench of talent.

Ultimately, ensuring that the leadership development paradox doesn’t happen is critical, as the success of organizations depends as much on the “averagely talented” as the talented few. Amid this war for talent that currently has no geographical limitations and is showing no signs of stopping, investing in the “rest” ensures you have a strong bench and protects you from flight risk in the Great Resignation.


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