The importance of effective leadership is not breaking news. Endless articles, books, research reports, podcasts and more have been released on the subject, with more popping up every day. But while the need for effective leaders isn’t new, it’s perhaps more important than ever before.

In the face of global business challenges like employee engagement and retention, in addition to advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies, businesses are looking to their leaders to pave the way forward. It’s a tall order, and it means that modern leaders are tasked with far more than just managing team performance. They’re also responsible for building psychological safety and inclusion, coaching and mentoring employees, building career pathways and much more.

Leaders must be prepared to navigate the new demands of their role. However, Deloitte’s 2023 Human Capital Trends Report found that we’re experiencing a “readiness gap” for leading in a disrupted world, with 94% of survey respondents saying that “leadership capabilities and effectiveness in a disrupted world” are important, but only 23% of respondents feel their organization’s leaders are “ready to lead in a disrupted world.”

Organizations know that leadership is important: This is also reflected in Training Industry’s “State of the Leadership Training Market” report, which found that companies have increased their leadership training spend each year since 2021.

So why, then, are many companies seeing a lack of leadership readiness across the organization?

Here, we’ll consider the root causes behind the leadership readiness gap, as well as how training and development can help.

Behind the Gap: Core Causes

There are multiple reasons for the leadership readiness gap. Perhaps the most notable is that today’s leaders are faced with navigating a constantly changing business landscape — which is unlikely to stabilize any time soon.

Samreen McGregor, founder, executive coach and advisor at Tumeric Group and author of “Leader Awakened,” explains, “The world is in a state of unprecedented flux and accelerated digital and automated transformation.” Even so, “Businesses remain ambitious, contend with threats and adversities and leaders and employees operate at a relentless pace and are tired or burnt out.”

Accelerated digital transformation and automation mean that leaders need a certain level of technical expertise to thrive in a digital-first environment. This is especially true for leaders of remote or hybrid teams, who rely on virtual communication and collaboration tools to manage performance and drive engagement. If training fails to prepare leaders for the realities of virtual leadership, business outcomes will undoubtedly suffer.

Another reason for the leadership readiness gap is that organizations reserve leadership training for those already in management roles. This means that when high-potential employees (HiPos) are promoted into their first leadership role, there’s a significant learning curve. After all, an employee may be an exceptional individual contributor or subject matter expert (SME), but managing people requires an entirely different skill set.

Julia Fabris McBride, chief leadership development officer of The Kansas Leadership Center and author of “When Everyone Leads,” says it’s essential to prepare HiPo employees “to make the most of their authority positions to mobilize others and achieve big aspirations.” To do so, “they need early and repeated experience diagnosing complex situations and seeing and seizing their moments to lead.”

Ultimately, offering leadership training solely to those already in management roles holds employees back from achieving their full potential. All employees, regardless of whether they manage people or not, benefit from leadership training on critical topics like communication, self-awareness, empathy, giving and receiving feedback, resilience and more. This becomes even more true as organizational structures become less hierarchical, and employees of all positions gain the ability to influence and inspire — up, down and across the organization.

As McBride puts it, “leadership is an activity, not a position, and anyone can lead anytime, anywhere.”

Bridging the Gap: Possible Solutions

As previously mentioned, most organizations know that leadership development is important. But to be effective, training must address the skills leaders need to not only drive success in today’s world of work, but also in tomorrow’s.

These include (but are not limited to):

  • Change management: As change continues to impact businesses worldwide, across industries, “it’s critical for leaders to be able to communicate effectively and clearly, and to support their team appropriately as they navigate any kind of ambiguity or change,” says Megan Joecks, vice president of talent management at Charter Manufacturing. By training leaders on change management, they will be better positioned to remain agile and flexible in their roles as business and talent needs shift.
  • Remote leadership: As companies continue to embrace remote and hybrid work, leaders must learn how to support and develop team members in a virtual environment. This means learning to use virtual tools and technologies effectively, in addition to skills like conducting engaging virtual meetings and how to gauge non-verbal cues to enhance virtual communication.
  • Coaching and mentoring: By acting as a coach or mentor, leaders can help ensure that their team members have the skills they need to be successful in the future, whether that means assuming a leadership position or moving into a new role in a different function of the business. In this way, coaching and mentoring builds leadership readiness proactively, equipping employees with the skills — and confidence — they need to take the next step in their careers.

Training employees on the above skills can help build leadership readiness across the organization. Although leadership training is valuable for all employees, you may start by training employees who have exhibited leadership potential or who are on track to assume a leadership role in the near future.

To assess leadership potential, McBride suggests asking the following questions:

  1. Can this team member tell the difference between a complex, adaptive challenge that requires attention from employees across business functions (e.g., improving productivity) versus a technical problem that requires more specific expertise (e.g., implementing a new technology or system)?
  2. Is this person able to hold and test multiple interpretations of complex situations requiring leadership?
  3. Does this person regularly ask curious questions that make others pause and think differently?
  4. Can the candidate for promotion handle discomfort and tolerate uncertainty?
  5. Will this person act experimentally to make progress toward big aspirations? Or do they typically succumb to the allure of a quick fix?
  6. Does this person seek coaching and support?

By training HiPo employees and those “next in line” for a management role on future-forward leadership skills, learning leaders can help bridge the leadership readiness gap once and for all.

A Competitive Edge

To withstand the ongoing shifts in how we work and learn, organizations “need to be ready at all times, for anything,” Joecks says. And while learning leaders can’t predict the inevitable disruptions that lie ahead, they can give the organization a competitive edge by developing a strong pipeline of leaders who can guide the business through the unexpected and into the future — no matter how “disrupted” it might be.