I recently stumbled across a piece of text in a forthcoming chapter of the Oxford Handbook of Leadership and Organizations, which made me smile. It made me smile because leading authors in the field, Scott DeRue and Christopher Myers, structured the issue I had with the 70:20:10 rule nicely. Here it comes:

“A common assumption in the existing literature is that 70% of leadership development occurs via on-the-job assignments, 20% through working with and learning from other people (e.g., learning from bosses or coworkers), and 10% through formal programs such as training, mentoring or coaching programs (McCall et al., 1988; Robinson & Wick, 1992).

Despite the popularity of this assumption, there are four fundamental problems with framing developmental experiences in this way.

  1. First and foremost, there is actually no empirical evidence supporting this assumption, yet scholars and practitioners frequently quote it as if it is fact.
  2. Second, as McCall (2010) appropriately points out, this assumption is misleading because it suggests informal, on-the-job experiences, learning from other people, and formal programs are independent. Yet, these different forms of experience can occur in parallel, and it is possible (and likely optimal) that learning in one form of experience can complement and build on learning in another form of experience.
  3. Third, it is inconsistent with the fact that a large portion of organizational investments are directed at formal leadership development programs (O’Leonard, 2010). It is certainly possible that organizations are misguided in their focus on and deployment of these programs (Conger & Toegel, 2003), but we are not ready to condemn formal programs given the lack of empirical evidence.
  4. Finally, it is possible that the “70:20:10″ assumption leads organizations to prioritize informal, on-the-job experience over all other forms of developmental experiences, which some scholars argue allows leadership development to become a “haphazard process” (Conger, 1993: 46) without sufficient notice to intentionality, accountability and formal evaluation (Day, 2000).”

Why do I like it? Because today I often hear and read that we have a leadership crisis, but if we’re developing our leaders based upon assumptions like the 70:20:10 rule this can hardly be called a surprise. Stated differently, we are in dire need to make our leadership programs best practices instead of best guesses. The later starts with consulting scientists in order to know what works and what is still unknown, and by measuring the effects of leadership programs in quantitative, qualitative and longitudinal ways.

Yes, doing this is a hassle. Yes, it takes time and costs money (at first sight). And yes, it is complicated and sometimes politically dangerous. But then, and only then can a sound decision be made on how to refine leadership programs beyond the current practitioners expertise and judgment, the evidence from the context, and the perspective of the participants. As those sources no longer do the job.

In sum, leadership development should move beyond the 70:20:10 rule, and into evidence based leadership development. It seems that individuals, organizations, and societies need it today more than ever.

Any comments?

DeRue, D.S., & Myers, C.G. (forthcoming). Leadership development: A review and agenda for future research. In D.V. Day (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Leadership and Organizations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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