The biggest barrier to progress is the lack of time for professional development. "Without adequate investment of time, the benefits of professional development - for the individual and the organisation - cannot be realised," says a report on the research.
It paints an alarming picture of ageing management in further education, work-based learning and adult and community centres.
The report warns of a possible "succession crisis" among the next generation of leaders and managers as the current cohort approaches retirement age.
Chris Hughes, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, which carried out the study, said: "We are sitting on a time bomb as 60 per cent of leaders will retire by 2007. It is vital that we nurture future managers and equip them to take over."
The survey of 2,000 managers was carried out last summer, five years after a similar study. It shows a huge surge of interest in leadership, with managers being much better qualified. But it shows a leap in the average age of managers at all levels.
In 1997, 24 per cent of managers in FE were over 50, compared with 42 per cent in 2002, says the report, Tomorrow's Learning Leaders. It calls for a boost in resources for the new Leadership College to carry out better research into leadership training, improve development opportunities for women and ethnic minorities and create more opportunities for supervisors and middle-management.
Graham Peake, director of the Leadership College, said: "The key findings of the research reported here are that leaders and managers in the sector remain predominantly white, male and middle-aged.
"There is much more to do to ensure that women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds are represented in leadership and management roles in a similar percentage to that of the general population."
'Tomorrow's Learning Leaders' by Michael Frearson is available free from the LSDA (Tel 020 7297 9144) and will be available online. See www.LSDA.org.uk