The Virtues of Early and Powerful Leadership Development

January 28, 2022

virtues of early and powerful leadership development

There are several proverbial sayings whose message remains as valid today as they were 100 years ago. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “The early bird catches the worm.” 

As a consultancy that provides leadership development for public and private organizations, we are dismayed about two things we observe.

1. Organizations are waiting too long to begin leadership development.

2. Organizations often reserve the most powerful leadership development experiences for senior executives and those in the upper levels of middle management. 

Waiting Too Long

Here is the data, based on our analysis of what has transpired with approximately 87,000 leaders in our database. The chart below shows the age distribution of leaders who were participating in development. Note that the average age of all participants is 40.2 years. Put that fact alongside the other data point that the average person’s first-team leadership or supervisory position happens at 27 years of age. Is this a good policy and practice? Is it wise to have more than half of all supervisors in organizations function for a decade without any formal development?

leaders don't receive leadership development until later in their careers

Waiting too long has many negative consequences. The direct reports of these leaders are often deprived of the opportunity of working for a great leader. Unnecessary rookie mistakes are made. The career success and job satisfaction of the leader are diminished. Bad habits and practices become ingrained and are difficult to unlearn. The organization’s reputation is tarnished, along with the opportunity costs of what could have been had the new leaders been well trained.  

Reserving Powerful Methods for Senior Leaders

The second observation that concerns us is that the most powerful learning and development methods appear to be reserved for those in the most senior positions. We understand the traditional reasons for doing that. Some state that “rank has its privilege.” The other argument often made is that the organization cannot afford to give this development to the much larger group of supervisors and front-line leaders.

Our view is that leadership development has some similarities to broad-scale immunization initiatives in public health. The reason we provide widespread vaccinations and immunizations for diphtheria, tetanus, typhoid, measles, mumps, and smallpox is to eradicate these diseases or keep them to a minimum. The reason why we do this when children are young is obvious. The longer you wait, the more chance there is for harm to occur to the individual and for others to be infected. And it would be foolish to give a weakened or second-rate dose to children on the argument that there were more of them or that they had not earned the more powerful dose.

Similarly, using the most powerful and proven tools of development early in a person’s career makes far greater sense. It is at these early stages when a healthy dose of objective feedback can nudge people onto an optimum path and prevent the practice of career-limiting behavior. Today a major dose of self-awareness via a 360-degree feedback process is most often reserved for upper-middle and top management. 

We read stories of mothers starving themselves so that their children can eat well. We acknowledge that this may be an overly dramatic metaphor, but mothers instinctively recognize the importance of feeding their young with the most nutritious food. They realize that it has long-term consequences. Why doesn’t this same principle apply to our organizational life? Why reserve the most powerful development for upper-middle and senior management when it can easily be available for the newly appointed front-line leader?

—Jack Zenger

(This article first appeared on Forbes)