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. A 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.
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