If teachers have the right skills and receive support, they could be running secondary schools while still in their twenties, said Steve Munby, the chief executive of the National College for School Leadership.
More money should also be given to headteachers in areas that are struggling to recruit the right calibre of leaders, he said.
"There should be rigorous diagnostics in the first few years of being a teacher, which are followed by a fast-track system," said Mr Munby. "It is crucial for school leaders to identify talent. We should be challenging the hierarchical model. Age and experience should be replaced by merit and ability."
The number of heads retiring is likely to rise from 2,250 in 2004 to a peak of nearly 3,500 in 2009, before falling back to about 2,500 in 2016. "The average age of headteachers in their first headship is 42. If it continues to take 20 years to become a headteacher we will not have enough," said Mr Munby.
The college is looking at designing a set of diagnostic tests for local authorities and schools that they can use to identify leadership talent. It said it was looking at various model questionnaires.
Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, is considering plans submitted by the college for more structured development for teachers interested in becoming heads.
Those who show potential would be given early opportunities to lead, take part in internships to see different styles of headship and do a secondment in their fifth year of headship.
Better pay, housing assistance and season ticket loans have been recommended in areas where it is difficult to attract good heads.
The recommendations are based on 10 pilot schemes that have run around the country since September.
Research carried out by the NCSL shows that middle managers in schools have a more negative view than deputy heads of the stresses involved in being a head. Headteachers are positive about the job: 91 per cent said they enjoyed it and felt confident doing it.
Mr Munby said the success of some primary schools in appointing young headteachers should set an example for secondary schools.
OUTSTANDING LEADER AT 30, SAYS OFSTED
Liz Robinson, 30, who has been headteacher at Surrey Square primary, Southwark, south-east London, for the past year, was the first teacher to be fast-tracked to headship having gone through the National College for School Leadership's training programme.
She said: "I've been in the job almost a year now and of course it has been challenging. We were inspected by Ofsted in September and were rated as outstanding for leadership and management. That was a huge boost and shows that having a young headteacher is working.
"Younger teachers who feel ready should be given the chance to take on extra responsibilities and develop. It's not about young being better - it's about having good leaders."