June 2006 Insight Newsletter


Developing Leaders

It takes leaders to develop leaders!

The great challenge facing organizations today is how to cope with changing demands, both immediate and distant. The human abilities for effective progress amid rapid change are known collectively as leadership. Leaders are distinguished most of all by personal judgment rather than obedience to orders. The ability to balance competing demands and opportunities forms the cornerstone of their ability to take people and organizations into a better future.

Very few organizations are set up to develop leaders, but the need is growing rapidly due to constant change as well as the continuing loss of experienced staff from the workforce.

For centuries, organizations have followed the hierarchical, top-down command style of Roman legions and large-scale religious and political institutions. They have looked for single individuals with nearly miraculous powers to command compliance through a hierarchy of discipline, commitment and unquestioning obedience. It barely needs pointing out that this model has run its course. Today all of us expect to have input.

With computers, Internet and a greater understanding of the science of Complexity we are finally beginning to see the next evolution of human leadership skill developing. Everyone at every level needs to be “engaged,” not “ordered.” Individuals have too many choices to submit willingly with blind loyalty or obedience to rules or charismatic, single leaders. We are taught to question and seek options that make sense for us as well as the organizations we work for.

As we teach each new generation of workers even more thoroughly than the preceding ones that they should be exercising judgment and not just following orders, we have a growing need to develop leaders who can work in this environment and maximize the efforts of these “volunteers” as opposed to yesterday’s “conscripts.” We also have the material to work with – emerging managers who expect to exercise judgment just as seasoned leaders should. The challenge is to help them develop. Even the U.S. Army is learning to change its command style to give field leaders more autonomy, loosely following a General’s “command intent” rather than rigid “orders of the day.”

Unfortunately there is little effort to consciously develop this style of leadership. We will remain stuck in a transition period with a shortage of leaders until we begin to learn the new pattern required.

So How Do Effective Leaders Develop?

In studies of effective leaders, they themselves identify the experiences they needed to help them develop the necessary skills. Listing these in order with most important first, they look like the following (from the Corporate Leadership Council’s “Voice of the Leader” report):
1. Senior Authority On The Job
2. Individual Development Plan
3. Peer Discussion
4. Executive Coaching
5. Mentoring
6. Feedback
7, 8, 9, 10. Lesser “on the job” leader roles
11. Courses – people (#1), tech, business…

In other words, the most important learning experience you can have is being given a senior job and having to do it. You learn fast or fail. Beyond that, to succeed it helps to have someone work with you to plan, identify and develop skills you’re missing, a chance to talk to peers who are struggling with the same sort of transition, some direct coaching, some general mentoring and lots of feedback on how you’re doing.

After these key elements, leaders said the greatest growth came from rotating through lesser “leader” roles in organizations to get an overview rather than simply experience in one function. Although the list goes on much further, it is only when we get to #11 that we begin to see leaders giving credit to formal training, beginning first and foremost with how to handle people. Specific technical and business skills rate still further down the list.

Leadership is a specialized skill. It is not something you pick up in school along with advanced technical and business skills. It needs to be developed on its own, in practice.

Dr. Bob Eichinger, now a consultant in leadership competencies who has co-authored books and taught in prestigious programs on the subject, has developed a list of 67 competencies for leaders. Ironically, he points out that the majority of leaders have virtually exclusively skills for individual achievement at work – integrity, intelligence, perseverance, technical skill, good boss relationships and so forth. Fewer than one third have developed people skills such as how to coach and grow others, deal constructively with conflict, confront people and problems, even how to develop themselves personally.

The fact that leadership is almost entirely about motivating, developing and engaging other people to participate fully in organization strategies means the majority of people in leadership roles today are not very well equipped to truly lead. This fascinating paradox explains much of the shortage.

At the same conference recently where I heard Eichinger talk about what leaders need to learn, consultant Marcus Buckingham very ably and humorously made his key point: it’s very hard to teach people how to improve in their weak areas. In his words: “don’t try to teach the pig to sing – it just wastes your time and annoys the pig.” That leaves an interesting puzzle. If the majority of leaders don’t handle people well enough and we can’t teach them to develop these weak skills, how can we produce the number of leaders we’re going to need to meet growing demand?

The answer lies in creating a climate of development and coaching. In that environment, today’s leaders can learn along with those they assist. From personal experience I can say that no one learns as much as the coach him- or herself from a coaching encounter.

If there is a single company culture standard that it would pay to introduce in every organization, it would be that every leader should coach in every interaction with others. The time commitment to do this has proven to pay off handsomely in saved time later and dramatically improved business results. Moreover, we can “teach” not through formal courses, but by exposure to varied roles with support from bosses who genuinely try to coach and mentor. You don’t have to have exceptional people skills to coach, you simply need to follow a few key coaching steps that anyone can apply. We may not be able to teach everyone to lead, but we can put them in the right jobs, with the right coaching and development plans so that they can learn for themselves.

Other Interesting, Similar Articles

Once again I was surprised to find some excellent resources appearing in government sources… HERE. Although Ray Blunt, who authored many of these articles, seems reluctant to apply them to business, I have no hesitation. The keys to developing leaders effectively are the same in all sorts and sizes of organizations. He reflects on these for government, but the ideas are equally applicable.

At a recent presentation to a group of post-degree college students studying to enter the human resource field, I was asked a popular question – what are the differences between public and private sector. Of course there are many, but one challenge remains paramount in both – how to motivate people to give their best at work and continually strive to make a difference.

The public sector is hampered by its sheer size. At the conference mentioned above, Marta Perez who’s taken over HR for the US Federal Government gave a striking presentation on the challenges and what they’re doing. As the world’s largest business with a $4 trillion budget you can understand the bureaucracy that’s developed, yet they’re proceeding, albeit slowly, to do the same things as private industry – develop measures of effectiveness and leaders who can be held accountable for programs (1000 programs in HR alone – of which initial studies show 24% were “ineffective” – so now they know clearly what to fix!).

The only real difference in the public sector is that the length of time it takes to achieve results can be much greater. Coupled with typically lower salaries, it is correspondingly harder to keep people motivated and believing in progress. Nevertheless, it’s still possible with the right leadership. Marta personally stood out as a great example of that in her efforts to develop others. It takes leaders to develop leaders as Ray Blunt says very clearly. Effective leaders coach!