The ‘chosen few’ (Guest Commentary)

Why the conventional approach to leadership development isn’t a best practice
By Malcolm Gabriel
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/07/2006

Talent and leadership development have always gone hand in hand. The understanding of talent has addictively focused on high potential based on some Darwinian notion that future leaders are created from a pool of about 20 per cent of employees who evolve into the “chosen ones.” And so employers disproportionately invest large amounts of capital on a group of “high flyers” in the hope the chosen ones will develop into future leaders. Identifying the chosen ones assumes leaders have the ability to accurately speculate on potential based on observation of demonstrated capabilities in employees’ current roles and the belief that past behaviour is a predictor of future behaviour. However, the conventional approach to talent and high potential is very limited.

It is not uncommon for leaders to be considered high potential under one manager in one business unit and then, after being transferred to another business unit, lose their royalty status as a high potential when they struggle to adjust to the finer nuances in the different business unit context. Vice-versa, duds inherited from other business units can suddenly emerge as high-potential talent in their new business unit. Nor is it uncommon to hear that leaders considered to be high-potential talent were actually not considered talent at all in their previous organizations. So what has changed? Has the employee suddenly inherited a dose of talent characteristics or has she simply found that unique combination of environment, manager and role that leverages her true potential?

The war for talent has confused employers’ understanding of talent and leadership and created a misperception that there is a limited pool of talent and that it looks and feels the same from one organization to another. Organizations often ride on a high when they poach talent from another organization and boast about their newfound intellectual capital at the expense of competitors. However, the war for talent is really just a war to find the right fit or the right context for leaders. Leadership and high potential are inspired under the right combination of role, environment and managerial response.