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From Classroom to Boardroom: Early Identification and Development of Leadership Potential

Nature or nurture? As businesses continue to battle volatility and uncertainty, the “origin of leaders” debate grows louder. It is little wonder, then, that our clients want to learn more about leadership potential, and how, when, and where they can spot it. Fortunately, we can provide some answers. Our new research shows that leadership potential can be identified earlier than you might imagine, and there are ways to catalyze this potential before would-be leaders graduate from school. How? With a little help from their parents!

A love of leadership: When does the motivation appear, and for whom?

Over 300 parents, located around the world, rated the frequency (on a five-point scale) with which their children—aged 2 to 22 years old—demonstrate 10 leadership potential characteristics. For one of these, Motivation to Lead (displaying an upward ambition to influence or pursuing formal/informal leadership opportunities), we see an early enthusiasm for leadership among toddlers (4.2) that dramatically falls away during middle school (3.0).

Motivation to Lead: How boys and girls stack up en route to adulthood

What explains this drop in motivation? Open-ended comments from parents cited the pressure for young teens to follow the status quo rather than stand out from the “pack.” One survey participant summed this up succinctly: “My oldest daughter used to be totally comfortable in a leadership role but, as she got older, she became more of a conformist and now sometimes completely lacks self-confidence.”

For females, restoring initial levels of motivation for leadership is a greater challenge. Our data indicate that male enthusiasm for leadership climbs after high school and rises to 4.4 in college/university. Meanwhile, female motivation improves steadily as well but never reaches higher than a 3.5 rating—much below the level of their two- to five-year-old selves. This gender “gap” is concerning. How can we drive diversity in the working world when females are less motivated to lead? Organizations should be on alert and look for ways to encourage females to lead early in their careers (e.g., apprenticeships or cohort groups) and ensure a balanced pipeline.

A taste of leadership: Who wins the crucial “trial” opportunities and what are the benefits?

We also surveyed parents about their children’s activities and looked at the impact of these out-side-of-classroom endeavors on leadership potential. What we saw was a correlation between holding an elected position of leadership and the likelihood of demonstrating many of the indicators of potential, including Motivation to Lead, Receptivity to Feedback, Bringing Out the Best in People, and Navigating Ambiguity.

Elected positions are the best opportunity to hone leadreship skills

Unfortunately, our results also show that males attain 60 percent of these high school elected positions. This may relate to the earlier finding about female motivation to target and win these roles, and be a reflec-tion of the glass ceiling awaiting later life. What we do know is that, gender notwithstanding, only a handful of students will be elected to lead. Therefore, parents can look for ways to give their children a preview of leadership by encouraging their involvement in the management of household or family activities. Getting this kind of sample “taste” may foster leadership skills, including Receptivity to Feedback or Navigating Ambiguity. Similarly, within organizations, companies can identify opportunities for less “official” leadership positions earlier in the pipeline (e.g., department or division representatives), thus offering exposure to leadership expectations and providing a preview of leadership responsibilities before promotion.

Leadership potential equality: Gender similarities

Good news: In five areas of leadership potential, there was no significant difference in capability across the genders. Restated, for 50 percent of the critical leadership attributes we looked at, males and females are neck-and-neck when it comes to exhibiting these during the pre-work years.

Gender similarities for critical leadership attributes
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