Leadership development is a process that can be learnt and replicated

By Roshan Thiran

In 2001, I took on a new assignment at the organisation I was working in at that point – General Electric (GE). Part of the assignment with GE Crotonville, GE’s leadership development centre, was to revamp our leadership curriculum as a new chief executive officer (CEO) had recently taken over. I was excited about this new task as it required meeting leaders all over the world and trying to understand what leadership really was.

After a couple of years of working on the curriculum, I realised that, in spite of having a great and robust leadership curriculum in place, something was missing. We worked really hard to develop leadership competencies but a huge part of great leadership formation was dictated by things that happened in a person’s childhood – their character development.

After I left GE, I continued to work on reconciling this complex conundrum. Organisations spend millions of dollars developing leadership competencies in their employees, but as a society we don’t spend much time or effort developing each child’s character and this has serious repercussions on their leadership journey. Let us look at Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa as examples.

Both were leaders who inspired their followers to do unimaginable things. While Hitler galvanised his nation to destroy, torture and annihilate people, Mother Teresa galvanised people to volunteer their time and money and to sacrifice themselves to the work of helping the poor in Calcutta, India. Both had great leadership competencies in influencing, leading and mobilising followers. Yet, these two lives produced very different outcomes. Why?

A big part of why Hitler and Mother Teresa drove such differing agendas, despite them both having strong leadership skills and competencies, is because of character. Whilst Mother Teresa’s early childhood was marked by love, growth and moral character development, Hitler’s early childhood was filled with strife and fear, and had little moral character development. Much of his character was performance character development whilst Mother Teresa had a combination of moral character, performance character and intellectual character development.

Character motivates behaviour. Whilst Hitler was motivated to be a leader because of anger and revenge, Mother Teresa was motivated to be a leader because she saw it as a way to change the world and make a positive difference against the injustice she saw. Both Hitler and Mother Teresa worked tirelessly to learn leadership skills and competencies but both had very different motivating factors.

This led me to develop a framework I like to call the Science of Building Leaders. After reviewing extensive research in the field, personal experiences in the workplace, and insights from leaders across the world, I developed a process of how different elements at different periods of a person’s life build upon each other to enable the person to become a leader. Some end up like Mother Teresa, Ben Franklin or Mahatma Gandhi whilst others become Hitler, Jeffrey Skilling or other bad leaders.

Character is one element that distinguishes great leaders from bad ones but there are many other factors such as trauma, values, early role models, friendships in the teenage years, and experiences accumulated in their early adult years that drive personal purpose and vision. Each of these elements, connected together, creates different nodes that effectively determine a person’s leadership journey and effectiveness.

The main idea behind this Science of Building Leaders research is that different aspects of leadership development occur at different points in an individual’s life. I have broken it into three key elements – Foundational Leadership, Emerging Leadership and Executing Leadership – which are further broken down into six other key areas. The key insights are as follows:

1. Foundational Leadership – this is a period where a person develops character. There are three key areas of character: moral, intellectual and performance character.

2. Emerging Leadership – this is a time where a person develops their identity including understanding their strengths, having a firm sense of values and understanding their purpose and their vision. Once they are clear what these are, they start building competencies that enable them to achieve their personal vision and purpose.

3. Executing Leadership – this is a period of growth and execution. Leadership competencies, including decision-making, are enhanced and the individual either makes it or breaks it as a leader. For those that make it, it leads on to a teaching and legacy phase where they “give back” by sharing their leadership Point of View (POV) via mentoring, teaching and knowledge transfer.

Figure 1 below illustrates in brief some of the stages from character development to identity formation to growth and execution as a leader.

Whilst the 3 stages of leadership development indicates physical age, do note that different individuals develop and receive knowledge and experiences at different times and stages in life. The age brackets are therefore just a rough guide and should not be taken literally. There are many leaders who may be in their senior years (age-wise) but have yet to develop a clear sense of purpose or identity.

Thus, they are stuck in the emerging stage even though they may well be close to their retirement age. Likewise, if a person has had little character development in their early formative years, it is highly likely a lot of their motivation and leadership competency development will be for personal or self-gratifying reasons.

Whilst going through each of the pieces in this Science of Building Leaders research will require a whole book to cover, I have tried to provide some form of explanation for certain elements in Figure 1 so that you can look at yourself and ask if you have personally gone through all the different aspects of leadership development.

You can find an explanation of some of the key areas:

Managing stress and trauma

Early childhood stress and trauma play a significant role in future leadership ability. Scientists have concluded that childhood stress causes damage to developing bodies and brains. And your brains have a huge role to play in your leadership. Researcher Robert Anda and Vincent Felitti concluded that “the correlations between adverse childhood experiences and negative adult outcomes were so powerful that they stunned us.”

Young children who grow up under severe trauma and stressful environments generally have problems focusing, concentrating, sitting still and even rebounding from disappointments and challenges. Stress at adolescence too, can be manifested in two ways – either inwardly, where they feel frustrated, angry and fearful and experience self-doubt internally, or externally, where it is manifested in shouting, fighting and possibly even breaking the law.

However, there are very few stress-free environments for kids in the world. So what would be a counter to stress? Love. Researcher with rats noticed that baby rats subjected to severe trauma who were licked by their mums after being put back into their cages had their anxiety and fear counteracted, and this calmed them down.

Researchers compared baby rats that were licked and groomed against those that weren’t and concluded the following – the loved babies were more social, more curious, had better self-control, were less aggressive and even lived longer. More interesting was that even when the love was showered by a ‘different’ mother (a non-biological one), the infants grew up bolder, braver and better adjusted.

High-quality parenting is critical at this starting stage of leadership development as it acts as a buffer for adversity and trauma. That’s why a lot of work that we do at Leaderonomics is now centering on providing parental development and not just child development.

However, as we grow up, stress and trauma have a positive effect. In our Emerging Leadership stage, stress enables us to be pushed to learn faster. We will explore this further during the Crucible period, where high stress and pain, actually help us gain clarity on our vision and values.

Developing moral character, intellectual character and performance character

foundational leadership

In our formative years, our experiences and the people we interact with shape what we consider right and wrong. This essentially shapes our character. I like to believe there are three character dimensions:

  • Moral Character
  • Performance Character
  • Intellectual Character

What’s the difference and what do they all mean?

Moral character – Moral character is fundamental to be developed early. It represents character traits such as integrity, generosity, sportsmanship, justice and gratitude. Leaders who have not been developed in moral character develop deep self-centeredness and become very inward looking.

Performance character – This represents your ability to work hard, persevere and not give up. Researchers David Levin and Dominic Randolph outlined a number of performance character strengths critical for leadership success, which are: grit, self-control, zest, optimism and curiosity.

Intellectual character – Intellectual character is comprised of various beliefs we have ordained for ourselves. The mind is a powerful ally or enemy. Carol Dweck, another researcher, believes that our beliefs can make or break us. One belief she emphasises is how some children believe that who they are is fixed, while others believe they are malleable and flexible. Children who have a “fixed” mindset essentially grow up thinking they have no control over their lives, while the “growth” mindset kids work harder to master tough, challenging situations as they have no qualms about being good or bad at a specific skill.

Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism states that the best time to transform pessimistic kids into optimistic ones is “before puberty but late enough in childhood” that they are capable of thinking about thinking (metacognition). At Leaderonomics, we have designed all our youth curriculum to be character-based, embedding all elements of moral, performance and intellectual characters.

As parents and teachers, we need to realise that character can be moulded, taught and changed. Angela Lee Duckworth, a researcher on grit (a type of performance character), believes that:

habit and character are essentially the same thing. Some kids have good habits and some kids have bad habits. They know that habits might be hard to change, but they are not impossible to change.”

As parents, it is important for us to expose our child to a variety of situations, prompting them to reflect and make choices on their own, pointing out consequences, helping them understand alternatives and outcomes. Make a conscious effort to develop all three dimensions of the character component.


Our values guide us as individuals in all the decisions we make in our lives. They start forming at a very young age. They get formed by observing and listening to others. Like character development, value development relies much on parents and those around us at a young age, and thus exposure to the right individuals, and/or pointing out the benefits and harms of certain behaviours and attributes would lead to intentional value development.

First leadership experiences

Taking charge of a task and a group of people allows our child to have their first leadership experiences. Whether it is being a classroom monitor, a prefect, or a leader of a school club, these experiences and interactions with higher authority, as well as learning to influence and guide a group of people towards a certain goal, allow youngsters to start building their formative leadership portfolio. Success in their first leadership role will ignite and spur them forward to take on more challenging roles. At Leaderonomics, we develop these “first” leadership experiences during our Leaderonomics Club sessions to ensure everyone has an opportunity to grow and be inspired to be a leader.

Intelligence development

Intelligence is different from intellectual character. Whilst character comprises mindsets and beliefs, intelligence stems from developing a love for learning and growing the brain. Reading, observing, listening and exploring build intelligence. This formative intelligence is necessary as a key element of effective leadership is decision-making, which requires heightened levels of intelligence.

First role models encountered

Children imitate people around them or people they look up to. If there are great leadership role models surrounding them, they are much more likely to aspire and perspire to be great leaders. Again, although this may seem simple, not many of us ‘manipulate’ our surroundings to ensure great role models surround the leaders we aim to groom.

Secure base

Having someone to run to when things go bad makes a child feel secure about going out and trying many new things. I learnt about the power of secure bases from former hostage negotiator George Kohlrieser. Secure bases are essential in the foundational years of one’s leadership journey as risk-taking and exploration can only be developed in a child when they have a safety net. Children can leave the comforts of their parents or teachers and go out and be challenged but know they can always return to the safe arms of their ‘secure-bases’.

“Crucible” moments

Key events in one’s life, especially the negative ones, are critical to a leader’s growth. Crucible moments can happen at any point of one’s life, and they are usually life-changing, altering the trajectory of your life. Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, the fate of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz’s father, and the stories of numerous cancer survivors attest to the impact of crucible moments that hit us hard suddenly in life. Instead of crippling a person, depending on how one’s character has developed, and one’s values and secure bases, crucible moments can propel a person forward.

Crucible moments are generally rough patches but those that bounce forward (not bounce back) from such situations learn and grow immensely from them. They are also moments where clarity of purpose and vision is established.

Other key areas of the science of building leaders

Leadership philosophy

Figure 1. Some of the stages from character development to identity formation to growth and execution as a leader.

Although I lack the space to elaborate on the above, here are some quick notes to help you understand the space. As the Science of Building Leaders is comprehensive, each piece of the puzzle requires some form of investment in time, effort and development costs. They are:

Agency (Foundational) – Agency is the capacity to act independently, to make one’s own free choices and to make decisions quickly.

Competition (Foundational) – Competition is a double-edged sword. Healthy competition pushes competitors to new heights. The pressure of spectators and competition enhances performance.

Developing self-awareness (Emerging) – Young leaders need to learn to be humble and instill a weekly or daily self-awareness ritual. This enables them to understand their strengths and weaknesses and manage their feelings, emotions and desires. Having a clear understanding of our motives enables us to know when we are off-course and need to change gears.

Developing vision for self and clear sense of purpose (Emerging) – This phase is important in the development of a leader as it denotes the starting point of a person’s leadership journey. Once there is clarity on ‘who I am’, we can clearly start to establish ‘why am I here’ and our purpose.

Develop leadership competencies (Foundational) – Competency development can only occur once character development is solidified. This also can only take place after a person has clearly understood who they are and their personal purpose.

Practising leadership-building initial stories (Emerging) – A huge part of leadership will require storytelling. Leaders need to accumulate experiences, both success and failure stories, that will help them practise leadership and grow in the journey. This is an important phase that is neglected in many leadership development processes. Leaders must be given ‘growth’ time to learn and practise and fail and relearn.

Being mentored and being a mentor to others (Executing) – This is another crucial development process that is often neglected. Being mentored is like having a ‘secure base’ in the later stages of leadership (when our safety nets in parents and ‘friends’ are removed). It is also critical for us to give back and mentor others to ensure our legacy is passed on and others learn through us.

Having a clear leadership point of view (POV) (Foundational) – As we grow into the ‘Executing’ Stage of Leadership, we must have a clear Leadership POV. This provides clarity for decision-making and also ensures a means for us to understand what leadership actions enable us to thrive or fail.

Enhance decision-making skills (Executing) – The heart of leadership is to be able to make the right decisions at the right time and the right place. Thus, the ability to make great decisions is the final skill needed to be a successful leader. Dealing with the consequences of your decision is also key to you flourishing as a leader.

Builders of communities of love (Executing) – Great leaders always leave behind a legacy of an amazing community where there is love, joy and togetherness. Regardless of the circumstances, e.g. a community of poverty-stricken orphans, a great leader builds a community that is sustainable and will run long after the leader retires from his or her role.

There are many other elements which I have not written about at length here, and others on which I have only skimmed the surface. At Leaderonomics, our goal is to be able to support and equip every parent, teacher and counsellor to help every person become a leader. This article provides a framework but at the end of the day, much hard work and effort are required, not just from the aspiring leader but also from the community around them – from parents, teachers, bosses and current leaders. After all, it does take a village – and more – to build a leader.

Roshan Thiran has long been fascinated by the research on leadership development and is committed to making Leaderonomics the ultimate destination for leadership research in Asia. He recently made super researcher Evangelia Christodoulou the head of research at Leaderonomics and is now building a team of researchers to continue expanding this work.