Develop Next Generation Leaders: Start Early and Focus on Adaptability - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #486

Develop Next Generation Leaders: Start Early and Focus on Adaptability

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Current leaders rate self-motivation and communication skills as the most important leadership competencies, but say adaptability and multi-cultural awareness will gain in importance for the future, according to a recent survey. 


The next generation of leaders will emerge from the young people entering the workforce today. The best organizations and their leaders have begun thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of this next generation: what competencies they will need to succeed now and in the future.

A CCL survey of current leaders from the corporate and non-corporate sectors yielded some interesting insights into the issues and concerns related to this next generation of leaders.

Self-motivation followed by communication skills are the most important competencies for today’s workplace. Respondents were asked to choose — from a list of 24 competencies — the top three competencies that were most important today, and those that had been most important 20 years ago. In today’s workplace, self-motivation/discipline ranked as most important for 44% of respondents, closely followed by effective communication (40%). Learning agility (29%), self-awareness (26%) and adaptability/versatility (22%) closed out the top five. In comparison, 20 years ago, technical mastery topped the list with 53%, although self-motivation/discipline was not far off (46%) and effective communication came in fourth with 31% of respondents believing communication skills were most important 20 years ago. The two other top 5 leadership skills from 20 years ago were confidence (32%) and resourcefulness (20%).

Adaptability will be the key competence in the future, but multi-cultural awareness is also important. Ten years from now, most of the top five leadership skills remain the same, although some of the priorities have changed. Adaptability/versatility (29%) is seen as being most important in the future, followed by communicating effectively (26%) and learning agility (24%). Self-mastery, fourth on the list of today’s competencies, disappears, replaced by multi-cultural awareness (22%), while self-motivation/discipline and collaboration are tied for fifth (20%). One insight from the survey is that two competencies appear on all three lists — effective communication and self-motivation/discipline — indicating according to the researchers that “these may represent core and enduring competencies.”

Breaking down the survey results by sectors, size of organizations and roles in organizations yields little difference among the participants. The only difference might be in the priorities — corporate respondents, for example, are more likely than non-corporate respondents to choose self-motivation and effective communication. Managers are also more likely to emphasize the importance of self-motivation and discipline than respondents in other roles (staff or contributor). Another interesting difference is the important of the competency ‘values-driven’, which was more highly rated by non-profit respondents and respondents 50 and older. Nevertheless, values-driven did not make the top five on any list, demonstrating, in general, that the same competencies are valued by leaders of all ages and in all sectors. 

These leaders also shared a strong belief that young people need to start learning early in life the skills and attitudes required for leadership — even before their first jobs. A vast majority (90%) believed leadership development should start before the age of 18, with 40% supporting leadership development programs for youth between the ages of 11-17.


While most organizational leaders believe that leadership development skills should be developed early, our educational systems fail to perform this task effectively for most young people. While many high-quality youth leadership develop programs are available, few young people take advantage of them. It thus falls to companies and organizations to start developing leadership skills in their employees as they enter the workforce. Early leadership develop is not only valuable in anticipation of future promotions to leadership roles; with today’s emphasis on global outreach and teams, leadership qualities are essential for all employees, including entry-level employees just starting their careers.

Executive development and succession planning are understandably a great concern for boards and top leaders. However, while paying attention to emerging executives, companies must not forget that the next generation of leaders is already in the building. This survey highlights some of the most important leadership skills on which they need to concentrate.



Expanding the Leadership Equation: Developing Next-Generation Leaders. Ellen Van Velsor & Joel Wright. Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®) White Paper (October 2012).

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Idea conceived

October 1, 2012

Idea posted

Feb 2015
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