woman standing on ice looking up

It's Time to Address the Coming Leadership Void

June 17, 2021 Leadership
Lance Haun
By Lance Haun

“We spent months just supporting people working from home for the first time.” That’s what one Portland-based learning leader told me about how their priorities shifted in the pandemic last November. 

Ask any vendor who sells to learning and development and you’ll hear a similar theme. Organizations want tactical courses. Training on Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Upskilling and reskilling for industries undergoing major transformation. Onboarding training updates for industries hiring and rehiring thousands of employees.

Which, considering all of the changes, makes sense. But what nearly everyone has said is how little organizations are prioritizing leadership development right now. That’s a huge problem. 

Taking Care of Your Foundation

Our house was built in 1913, so we know a little bit about house maintenance. Leadership can be an invisible force on your business, similar to a foundation on a house. If you forget to look at it for a few months, you’re probably fine. Issues like retention, productivity and engagement can be one-off challenges. As long as you’re keeping up on things, you probably won’t be surprised.

Extend that to years? That’s where problems start. And believe me, they are expensive problems. 

So when the pandemic hit, taking a few months to focus on other critical issues was fine if you were already on top of your leadership development. If you weren’t already on top of upskilling leaders, the pandemic pushed you further behind. 

Unfortunately, the decline in leadership investment looks like it predates the pandemic. 

Related Article: How Workplace Leadership Shifted in the Last Year

The Coming 'Lost Generation' of Leaders

Global leadership consulting firm DDI recently released the Leadership Transitions Report 2021, based on a survey of over 2,000 HR executives and 15,000 organizational leaders.

While you’d expect the pandemic to affect leadership development training, what the leadership report shows is that the decrease actually started before the pandemic. According to the report, 61% of leaders received leadership skills training in early 2019 or before. By mid to late 2019, that figure had dropped to 52%. In 2020, the number had dropped to under 50% — meaning most leaders weren’t receiving leadership training when they likely needed it the most.

transition support lacking during a crisis

This is bad. We can say that it makes sense to cut back leadership training in times of crisis because there are other priorities, but it really doesn’t. Helping employees navigate a time of crisis is a defining leadership moment. Company leaders up and down the organization need real support, both tactically to get through the crisis and strategically to help them succeed coming out of it. 

We have a void in leadership that is only going to increase as organizations kick the can down the road and put off making major investments in their leadership. But the news only gets worse. 

Women Are Losing Out on Leadership Development Opportunities

At a time when a quarter of women are considering leaving the workforce or significantly changing their role, DDI’s report also found significant gaps in leadership development between men and women. 

Their research found that men were 13% more likely to receive leadership skills training, 19% more likely to be formally assessed and 22% more likely to be assigned a mentor. 

Now remember, DDI only talked to HR executives and people that were already in leadership positions. That means that even among leaders, the gender gap persisted in significant and damaging ways during the biggest global crisis in many of our lifetimes. As DDI stated, “One important reason that women have failed to advance in management is that they have not had equal access to developmental experiences that would prepare them for higher levels.” 

The women that do manage to advance in these conditions get marched to a glass cliff, put into situations where failure would be expected. 

Related Article: How Employers Can Convince Women a Return to Work Is Worthwhile

Another Crisis Is Waiting in the Wings

As some things in work and life go back to normal, the gender gap and lack of investment in leadership are looming over organizations. 

Corporate learning leaders have proven they can act in a time of duress. When called upon, they answered. But a new crisis is already here. Leadership needs to be addressed well ahead of the need. While you can be trained on facilitating a virtual meeting in less than a day, the same can’t be said for leadership training. 

It takes years to equip leaders, which means a void driven by leaders leaving your organization can become a crisis quickly. The time to act is now. 


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