Does Leadership Potential Depend on Age or Gender?

In your organization, you likely (and certainly should) have older workers and females in your leadership pipeline. However, could their age or gender affect their observed leadership potential (OLP) or their mastery of leadership knowledge? Hirschfeld and Thomas (2011) used archival data to investigate these questions.


This study utilized a real-world sample consisting of participants in the US Air Force leadership development program. The authors found that observed leadership potential (OLP) was lower for older participants. Age also directly predicted actual mastery of teamwork knowledge and mastery of strategy knowledge. Older participants, overall, scored lower on tests of teamwork knowledge and strategy knowledge than did younger participants. These lower scores on teamwork knowledge and strategy knowledge partially explained the statistical relationship between age and OLP.

Gender was not directly related to OLP, contrary to what the researchers had predicted. However, female participants demonstrated less mastery of strategy knowledge than did male participants. The researchers had predicted this relationship; they argued that women would view top leadership positions as being incongruent with their gender, so women would focus less on mastering strategy knowledge. In this study, lower scores on mastery knowledge for women fully explained the statistical relationship between gender and OLP


What should be done based on these research findings? Providing managers with training regarding age stereotypes could be beneficial, as could providing training geared toward the self-efficacy and learning styles of older adults. Women in an organization should feel that they can achieve top leadership positions, which would lessen the feeling of gender-based role incongruence and reduce gender differences in mastery of strategy knowledge.


Hirschfeld, R. R., & Thomas, C. H. (2011). Age and gender-based role incongruence: Implications for knowledge mastery and observed leadership potential among personnel in a leadership development program. Personnel Psychology, 64, 661-692. 

Image credit: istockphoto/Martin Barraud