How Childhood Poverty Limits Later Leader Emergence

Topic(s): diversity, fairness, leadership
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology, 2016
Article: Persistent Exposure to Poverty During Childhood Limits Later Leader Emergence
Authors: J. Barling & J.G. Weatherhead
Reviewed by: Ashlyn Patterson

People enter the workplace with different experiences, personalities, and career paths. Organizations benefit from a diverse set of employees who bring different strengths and skill sets to work every day. Over time, certain employees begin to emerge as leaders and take on more responsibility. Are leadership teams just as diverse as the rest of the organization? Are there certain employees who are more or less likely to emerge as leaders? Researchers (Barling & Weatherhead, 2016) used data from over 4,000 American children and adults to understand why children exposed to poverty were less likely to emerge as leaders later in life. They found two reasons: a lack of quality education and a lack of personal mastery.


Children exposed to poverty are less likely to emerge as leaders because they lack quality educational opportunities. High-quality schools are more likely to attract more optimistic teachers and foster more positive peer relationships and less disciplinary problems. In contrast, children exposed to poverty often experience lower teacher quality, less parental involvement, fewer advanced classes, and fewer extracurricular opportunities than their wealthier peers. By the time these children become adults they have had less of an opportunity to develop the important social and cognitive skills that are characteristic of leaders, and they are less likely to be successful in leadership selection competitions.


People are said to have a strong sense of personal mastery when they have a strong sense of personal control, feel like they have the ability to confront issues, and believe they can overcome problems. The research shows that the more children report feeling a sense of personal mastery, the more likely they are to successfully compete for leadership positions when they become adults.

The problem is that children exposed to poverty are less likely to develop a sense of personal mastery. They are less likely to feel like they have control, they take the lead less frequently, and they have less of an influence on decisions. As a result, they are less likely to emerge as leaders.


Although organizations don’t have control over childhood exposure to poverty, they do have control over the leadership selection process. It is first important for organizations to recognize that a lack of opportunities, resources, and support for children in poverty sets the stage for a less diverse pool of future organizational leaders. These are systemic barriers that have implications for organizations. It is also important for organizations to diversify what it means to be a leader. Children exposed to poverty may not fit the stereotype of a traditional leader who attended the best schools and shows a strong sense of personal mastery. However, they may offer a different skillset, perspective, or experience that may benefit organizations

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Barling, J. & Weatherhead, J.G. (2016). Persistent exposure to poverty during childhood limits later leader emergence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 9, 1305-1318.