Predicting Leadership Competency Development and Promotion Among High-Potential Executives: The Role of Leader Identity

Predicting Leadership Competency Development and Promotion Among High-Potential Executives: The Role of Leader Identity

Darja Kragt and David Day |

Predicting Leadership Competency Development and Promotion Among High-Potential Executives: The Role of Leader Identity

Darja Kragt and AIPM Global Professor David Day | Frontiers in Psychology

We propose that distinct leadership competencies differ in their development over time. Extending the integrative model of leader development (Day et al., 2009), we further propose that leader identity will form complex relationships with leadership competencies over time. To test these propositions, we use longitudinal data (i.e., 5 months, four measurement points) of the 80 in total high-potential executives in a corporate leadership development program. We find a significant difference in the initial levels and the changes of eight distinct leadership competencies. We also find that leader identity relates to the development of certain – but not all – leadership competencies. Finally, we demonstrate the importance of developing leadership competencies by linking them to career advancement (i.e., job promotion). These findings are discussed in light of their theoretical and practical implications.


Leadership competency models are widely used by organizations and practitioners in targeting their leader development efforts. Despite a debate about the value of leadership competencies in leader development and talent management efforts (Hollenbeck et al., 2006), the complexity of a senior leadership role involves a number of diverse competencies. Mapping change at the individual-leader level benefits from the use of a competency approach to better understand what changes as a function of a developmental initiative and what form the changes take. Thus, we model the development of eight different leadership competencies in a 5-month leadership development program. We also study a time-varying predictor (i.e., leader identity) and career outcome (i.e., job promotion) associated with leadership competency development. We propose that the development of these competencies is driven by the acquisition of new leadership-related knowledge and through practice, both facilitated through participation in a leadership development program as well as activities undertaken outside the program (e.g., Mumford et al., 2000a; Day et al., 2009). It is also the case that at higher organizational levels, leaders require a more complex set of competencies to fulfill the growing demands of their roles (Mumford et al., 2007; Dragoni et al., 2011). Nonetheless, there is little evidence about how leadership competencies develop across time as part of a corporate leadership development initiative. In this manner, we extend previous literature by examining the trajectories associated with different leadership competencies in a sample of high-potential executives. This represents a novel evaluation approach to examine individual change over time during an intervention.

To further investigate the factors that are related to the development of leadership competency, we propose that leader identity will be positively associated with the developmental trajectories of leadership competencies. In this study, we conceptualize leader identity as a strength of identification with one’s leadership role. Identity evolves over time as a function of various relevant experiences, including involvement in leader development (Lord and Hall, 2005; Day et al., 2009). Leader identity is thought to be especially important in the development of leadership competencies because identity motivates an individual to engage in leadership activities and practice desired skills. We expect that leader identity forms a complex relationship across a range of leadership competencies in that it relates more strongly to the development of certain leadership competencies than others. This is due to the varying leadership schemas held by leaders, which form a part of a leader’s identity (Epitropaki et al., 2017). That said, the relationship between leader identity development and leadership skills development is complex (Miscenko et al., 2017), which mitigates any strong causal claims being made based on the current research design.

Leadership competencies have been identified as one of the factors that contribute to managerial career advancement (Claussen et al., 2014). Existing evidence suggests that organizational training and skill development opportunities are positively related to promotion (Ng et al., 2005). However, this literature lacks insights about specific leadership competencies that are crucial for promotion decisions (Collings and Mellahi, 2009; Claussen et al., 2014). The present study addresses this gap by proposing that the initial level and the change in leadership competencies will differently relate to (job) promotion following the participation in a high-potential leadership development program.

In sum, the present study contributes to the literature by advancing novel propositions about the development of leadership competencies. First, we suggest a more realistic view on the development of leadership competencies in proposing that individuals will have different initial levels of each leadership competency and these competencies will change at different rates during the leadership development program. Although these propositions are fairly straightforward and consistent with models of skills acquisition (i.e., Ackerman, 1987), this is not how leadership competencies are typically conceptualized or studied. Whereas previous literature has focused on the antecedents and the outcomes of a single competence (e.g., strategic thinking; Dragoni et al., 2011), our study advances a more complex model of competencies required for effective leadership at the executive level.

Second, we propose that leader identity may be associated with differences in the rate of competency development as a knowledge structure that supports competency acquisition. Although leader identity has been proposed as a proximal outcome of leadership development that supports the acquisition of leadership skills and competencies, it has been rarely investigated, especially among more experienced leaders participating in a high-potential leadership development program. By studying both identity and competencies, we are able to provide a fuller account of executive leadership development. Furthermore, given that more experienced executives have had greater exposure to leadership opportunities and may have engaged in leader identity development as compared with emerging leaders, there is likely to be less variability across more mature individuals in terms of how strongly they perceive themselves as leaders. Therefore, finding evidence of leader identity effects among experienced leaders poses a conservative test of the hypothesized relationships. Third, we evaluate the outcomes of leadership development by studying the promotion outcomes among the participants. Career outcomes are rarely investigated in leadership development literature, although it assumes that increases in human capital will lead to career advancement among leaders. We extend this research by proposing that a change in different leadership competencies will differently predict (job) promotion among program participants.

Overall, the present study contributes to the research and the practice of leadership development. Recent meta-analysis has demonstrated the overall effectiveness of leadership training on the outcomes of reactions to the training, learning, behavior transfer, and organizational results (Lacerenza et al., 2017). However, it is important to distinguish between leadership training and development initiatives. Leadership training tends to be focused, structured, short-term interventions in which all participants are expected to acquire the same knowledge and skills. Leadership development tends to be of a longer term, more individualized, and focused on senior leaders to expand individual and collective capacity for effective leadership (Day et al., under review). Evidence for the effectiveness of leadership development initiatives lags behind the evaluation research on leadership training. One purpose of the present research is to address this gap.

Finally, the present study contributes to leadership development practice by describing a novel way of designing and conducting leadership development evaluation studies. We demonstrate how existing organizational competency models can support tracking leader development by coaches over time using sophisticated, yet straightforward, statistical tools.

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Predicting Leadership Competency Development and Promotion Among High-Potential Executives: The Role of Leader Identity, Darja Kragt and David Day, Frontiers in Psychology, 2020

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