How to Close the Leadership Quality Gap

There is a leadership quality gap in the workforce that needs to be addressed. So what is causing it and how do we close it?

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Corporate America is hiding a little secret: There is a leadership shortage, and it’s only getting worse. Although managers are a dime a dozen, true leaders are worth their weight in gold, and they are becoming increasingly scarce in the modern workplace. While research clearly illustrates the startling trend in leadership decline, with 82% of managers and executives being seen as lacking in leadership skills by their employees, the perpetrators don’t seem to notice their failings.

86% of leaders believe they model the improvements they want employees to make, while 77% of leaders believed they “inspire action.” The diagram below shows that while 48% of leaders think they are doing well, a mere 28% of HR professionals agree with them based on 2020 data.

Simply put, the leadership gap is growing. The current leadership is misaligned with what is essential for leadership effectiveness in the future. So what’s causing this dichotomy of leadership? This article will discuss the common causes of the leadership quality gap and how to combat it.

Graph: Leadership quality gap
Source: Development Dimensions International (DDI).

“The manager administers; the leader innovates. The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective. The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why. The manager has his eye on the bottom line; the leader has his eye on the horizon. The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.” – Warren G. Bennis.

What’s causing the leadership quality gap?

Today’s leaders don’t have adequate preparation for the future — a consistent finding across countries, industries, and various levels of organizations. Some of the most common causes of the leadership gap are poor recruiting and promotion practices, and sub-par leadership development.

employee yelling at employee

The selection process is broken

A major driving force behind the leadership quality gap lies in the recruitment and promotion processes. Most employees in leadership roles are hired based on their previous positions and performance, not on their emotional intelligence. ​Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand your own and others’ emotions and how they drive behavior and then use that knowledge to motivate others, which isn’t a common precursor to climbing the corporate ladder.

What’s more, is that managers promoted from within often get there with character attributes that produce results on paper but fail to inspire their teams. Ambition, perfectionism, competitiveness, and individualistic motivation are just some of the traits companies look for when promoting employees. The only problem? These qualities are often toxic and create top-down style management that leaves employees feeling like hamsters on a wheel. Workers whose political skills are highly rated by their supervisors are more likely to have a high-performance rating and ultimately get promoted.

Many qualities that companies look for in managers are often toxic and create top-down style management.

Managers focus on setting, measuring, and achieving goals; they control, reduce risk, map out processes, and demand results. While these qualities help individuals do well in their siloed job roles, they don’t necessarily translate into leadership success. People on the promotion fast track tend to earn their spot by pushing and defeating others in their wake.

The training is faulty

United States companies spent $160 billion on employee training and education, yet:

  • 58% of managers said they did not receive any management training.
  • Only 10% of CEOs believe their company’s leadership development initiatives have a clear business impact.
  • 63% of millennials said their leadership skills were fully developing.

There is very little scientific evidence that leadership training produces great leaders. Although, as a country, we have an ever-growing leadership industry consisting of an almost limitless number of books, blogs, articles, workshops, conferences, and speeches, these leadership development efforts have still failed to improve the quality of leadership.

Even though budgets for leadership training are increasing year by year, little appears to be known about which leadership strategies yield results. Yet companies, government agencies, nonprofits, and educational organizations need leaders who can effectively navigate complex and changing situations in the future, so where do we go from here?

What can organizations do about the leadership quality gap?

To narrow the leadership quality gap, companies must understand the qualities of a great leader, implement the right selection processes, properly train them, and evaluate their efforts over time.

motivated employees

Understand the qualities that make a great leader

A clear understanding of leadership behaviors and business goals allows executives to develop a leadership strategy. In turn, development initiatives can align with those operational needs. Some of the traits of a great leader include:

  • Has integrity: They do what’s right, even if that isn’t the best thing for the current project or even the bottom line.
  • Empowers others: They train, coach, and develop the employees under them. They set aside time (and money in their budgets) to develop their workforce.
  • Problem-solver: They solve organizational problems and take advantage of opportunities in the marketplace while honoring their team.
  • Results-oriented: They have a high level of perseverance and drive to get things done with the help of their team.
  • Expert communicator: They communicate with their people often, clearly, and in a variety of ways.
  • Relationship builder: They take time every day to build relationships with their team, customers, vendors, others in the industry and in the community.
  • Competent: They build on their technical and professional skills over time, becoming valuable experts in their field.
  • Strategic: They have a long-term vision of the future and work to guide their businesses to the best future possible.
  • Innovative: They think outside the box and encourage their team to do the same. They buck the status quo.

Develop the right selection process

Once the qualities of a great leader are clear and defined, companies can develop specific strategies for recruiting or promoting people that fit the bill. Businesses should look beyond the resume and hire people based on how well they align with the values of the company and the qualities of a great leader.

Just as a business might hire a salesperson for their ability to connect with other people and close deals, they should hire a leader for their proven ability to inspire others, communicate, do what’s right, and more. Leadership criteria should apply to candidate interviews and be integrated into training and development efforts. Questions like, “What is a way you’ve personally demonstrated integrity in your past job roles?” go a long way toward closing the leadership quality gap.

Train leaders the right way

Leadership development is only effective if the entire organization is on board.

Companies can make leaders watch videos, read books, and listen to speeches until they are blue in the face. However, nothing beats hands-on learning. Practice chatbots, immersive simulations, and virtual reality are just a few ways leadership development has evolved with technology. Companies can now put their leaders to the test in life-like environments to practice their leadership skills.

Additionally, leaders need to see how specific skills, approaches, or behavior changes impact real people and goals. For example, if a leader struggles with communication, taking a digital course on effective communication is fine, but it’s not likely to stick. Showing them how their lack of communication affects their team’s productivity is more impactful. Integrating real-world scenarios into leadership development training is critical to its success.

Lastly, leadership development is only effective if the entire organization is on board. If, for example, a leader attends training only to see their boss blow it off or act like it’s unimportant, they are not likely to take it seriously. It’s essential to have full engagement from senior executives who commit to modeling effective leadership for the organization.

Evaluat3 the results

After the qualities of a great leader are defined and integrated into the selection process, organizations must keep the momentum going by continually evaluating their criteria and methods. They should consider systems for measuring the effectiveness of these efforts. Direct reports should be anonymously surveyed to determine a leader’s impact on their team, and business executives should ask themselves questions like:

  • Has retention gone up?
  • Has absenteeism gone down?
  • Have HR complaints dissipated?
  • Are employees more engaged?

Looking ahead: Closing the leadership quality gap

The sooner organizations understand the reality of their leadership gap, the quicker they can address and avoid it in the future.
There is a leadership quality gap in America, and it’s only continuing to widen. While most managers think that they are doing well, their HR teams and direct reports don’t seem to agree. Some of the reasons for the discrepancies include a broken selection and training process that favors toxic managers with little to no recourse or path to improvement.

Addressing these issues by understanding the qualities of a great leader, implementing the right selection processes, investing in proper training, and evaluating efforts over time is crucial to solving the leadership quality gap, i.e., corporate America’s dirty little secret.

Beyond identifying, selecting, training, and evaluating leaders, organizations should also continually groom future leaders within their organizations. Succession planning is crucial to avoiding leadership shortages down the line.

Corporations that invest in their rising stars and give them the opportunity to grow with self-development, performance management, and team performance training will stay ahead of the widening quality gap. Ultimately, the sooner organizations understand the reality of their leadership gap, the quicker they can address it and proactively avoid it in the future.

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