Leadership, like any human attribute, comes down to DNA and culture – Nature versus Nurture.
I am firmly convinced that every skill necessary to be a great leader can, unequivocally, be learned and mastered by anyone. Full stop.
That is the “Nurture” part.
The skills and the theory represent a limited field of knowledge. With the proper structuring and the opportunity to develop experience, any person can become a leader. Many often are, if not in their work place.
Here’s where “Nature” kicks in…
If you ever saw me play basketball, you’d watch with your eyes wide open as your jaw dropped in wonder… you’d be wondering “is he really that bad or is he just clowning around?” No matter how much nurture I get, I’ll ever overcome my terrible basketball DNA.
There are two kinds of people who will never be good leaders regardless of the training or nurturing. The ones who shun the responsibility of leadership and the ones who believe that a leadership development class is a confirmation of their greatness and is their first step toward…
Who are these guys?
There are people who shun the spotlight of leadership. Let’s call them the reluctant leaders.
It is a fair and personal choice to shun leadership. They and their motivations exist on a spectrum from no confidence to disliking the attention. There is not a “wrong” in their value judgment. In fact, recognizing their utility minimizes risk. The risk they present is not committing to the responsibility of being a leader. Being the authority figure can be the start, but if the boss does not act like a leader, people will not follow. What will follow is discord.
Being a leader and being a manager are not the same. The kinds of people thrive in a transactional environment can become great assets as managers or as candidates in specialist staff roles where they, with perhaps a small support staff, are subject matter experts (SMEs). Transactional means that the responsibilities are limited in scope, process oriented, and with some attention to exceptions.
There are people who seek it out through ambition or glory. Let’s call them ego leaders.
The risk of the power seekers comes in that they confuse power and leadership. They use power as a club or a scepter and wield either as their primary motivational tool. To be fair, there are circumstances when those are the correct tools. But in the long-term goal of developing leaders, the technique is corrosive and detrimental to their subordinates.
When one reaches a certain level of mastery and the wielding of leadership becomes a heuristic; an almost instinctive manner of behavior that helps you to execute the proper action at the right time without being able to explain the why. You could parse it out if you needed to, but the heuristic seems like a feeling or gut instinct. Personally, I don’t believe in gut instincts, I think they are the result of people developing 1000s of hours of experience that prioritizes information and practical knowledge into a nearly automatic mental process. Heuristic can lead you awry, the key is to be aware of your internal biases that can mislead you if you don’t constantly exercise self-checks and honest review.
Who is responsible for leadership development? It has to begin at the top. No leadership program can ever be effective if the CEO is not actively directing it. Some program is better than nothing, but the CEO must actively participate and guide the process from development to implementation and the final review. The CEO must provide the direction, the budget, and delegate the execution.
Leading a horse to water
My simple classification of reluctant leaders and ego leaders is obviously simplistic, but, based on my experience, they include the majority of leadership issues that I’ve encountered.
Some do benefit from training. But, most will not use the knowledge or tools. The lack of leadership or the misapplied authoritarianism will create rot in the corporate structure. It can be measured in absenteeism, retention rates, and active complaints.
Warning! I’m about to use the “P”
That bring us to the “P” word. How can we engineer out leadership problems that result in potential leadership disasters down the road?
I firmly believe that a company can “engineer” out 80% of potential problems if there is a cogent effort at the very top to give structure to the company’s growth and development. In the earliest days of some of my startups, with only 10 people, I had an organization chart for 250 people. The chart was purely functional, but supported the company in terms of operational and administrative growth.
It was also useful to help manage the expectations of the new hires. As you can imagine, with a new company everyone had multiple tasks beyond their job title. I was able to point to their positions on the chart and say “You are here, but for now I need you to do more than your regular tasks. When we have the financial ability, we will hire a guy to be your boss. Please don’t be insulted, you are doing a great job. We’ll need somebody to take over your extra duties and who has had more management experience.” Everyone got it. They understood the reasoning. I proactively managed their expectations and “engineered” out a lot of potential personal and personnel problems.
If there are two important purposes to any policy they are to support the values of the company and to manage the expectations of everyone in the company.
The policies regarding leadership have to be sponsored by the CEO. But, the functional responsibility should lie within the Human Resources (HR) organization. HR is typically responsible for all training and recruitment. Leadership development is a little bit of both as it lends itself to a company’s succession plan.
My leadership development policy recommendations:
Leadership development should be multi-leveled.
- The basic leadership philosophy and values should be the same, but there are different requirements and levels of personal responsibility. The expected availability of a shift-leader versus a Senior VP will be different. It all depends on the organizational structure, but the suggested levels (feel free to add or subtract): supervisors, senior supervisors, managers, senior managers, junior executives, executives.
- Every stage of the leadership development should be a voluntary process. The goal here is to filter out the reluctant leaders. Further, it is a way to reinforce commitment. Every time you volunteer, you indicate more commitment and accept the greater responsibilities. In the US military, everyone serving in the elite forces are reminded of their professional responsibilities by way of saying – you volunteered three times to get here: once when you joined, once when you requested special training, and once when you request assignment here. If your commitment wavers for any personal or professional reason, you can leave without penalty, but… we need your commitment.
- Differentiate between good leaders and good managers. They are not the same. Outstanding managers are good at resource management and transactional tasks. Outstanding leaders provide transformation.
- Differentiate between general leadership and specialist leadership. If through some process, you have created a “hatchet man”, you need to manage his/her development on an exception basis. A hatchet man is a specialist leader whose skill set and responsibility is to decisively cut away pieces of your business: downsizing personnel, closing a section or division. Their development needs to emphasize the other tools of leadership. You do not want a leader who believes every problem is solved with a hatchet… or a chainsaw.
- Personality testing. I am not a big fan of commonly used personality test such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I know that the testing is used all over the world and that there are millions of data points generated each day. I do not accept the MBTI’s circular validation based on self-reporting: “Do you think the MBTI accurately represents your personality?” If I spend time filling out a questionnaire that asks me about myself and the analysis reflects back what I say, then it will of course reflect my personality to some degree. The conclusions are so vague that I could compare it to astrology because it includes the same Forer Effect. “Fortune” covered MBTI in more detail than I shall. I am suggesting that it is a good idea to understand who you will be investing in and there are some options. Please consult an expert, but some options are the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory or the Personality Assessment Inventory. Under my premise that leadership is a social endeavor, I found some utility in Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation (FIRO-B) which measures the type of social interactions a person may desire. I would suggest that a person who wants high control and little inclusion might not be a good candidate for leadership roles.
- Consider using in-house feedback systems such as 360 reviews. I do not wholly support peer review programs. If they are poorly managed and poorly framed, they become sources of conflict or revenge and not a tool for transparency. If the 360 reviews are well managed, they can offer an amazing amount of transparency. They can be a signal of leadership problems or instances of excellence. The feedback should be presented anonymously to avoid possible retribution, but validated for veracity. The tool can be nuanced to resolve leadership skills from management skills.
Career Development Outside of Leadership
- Create alternate career paths that are rewarding outside of leadership roles. The main reason I suggest a multilevel leadership program is that it gives HR an opportunity to create branches in career development. By definition, everyone cannot be the leader. People do need to have the feeling for career progression. If the only avenue for progression is a leadership role, you may have a hard time retaining good people if they are unable to proceed. An alternative is to create specialty paths that reward expertise and experience in place of leadership responsibilities. Just because an experienced employee is not leadership material, you don’t want to lose the institutional knowledge and experience.
- Emphasize that leadership paths and specialty paths are both rewarding and valuable to the company. Although the leaders do lead and they have the authority, the specialists should be held in esteem and given recognition.
Leadership can be learned by anyone. But, unskilled people in leadership roles can have a deleterious effect on any organization.
You can mitigate the risk through a proactive selection process that qualifies candidates and gives them progressively growing leadership experiences. More importantly, if you have ever wondered “How did that guy ever becomes anyone’s boss?”; the qualification process should identify that guy before he can harm your organization.
There are people who are valuable to the company, but may not desire or deserve leadership roles. Policy can minimize risks and avoid the creation of a career bottleneck. HR create and manage alternate paths for career development and progression.
Not everyone can be Steve Jobs. But if they were, you’d hate going to work every day.
About Ken Wrede