While it is always great to be working on our own leadership skills, we should also think about how we teach others to lead. The reason this is so important is that another common trait of great leaders is they pay it forward. They don’t horde their knowledge, but actively share it with those who want to learn. Interestingly, this approach is often one of the key enablers of success for leaders of large organizations because it allows them to scale their impact beyond just those with whom they can directly interact.
The number of people that the average person can directly influence is finite. Depending upon whom you ask, that number is usually somewhere around five to seven, with extraordinary leaders being able to handle up to twice that. To be able to lead large organizations, however, leaders need to be able to influence hundreds to thousands of people. How do they do this? They lead other leaders who in turn lead others, and so on down the line. If this sounds like some kind of Amway-ish pyramid scheme, it kind of is. But it does not require anyone to buy a bunch of off-brand household products. What they do have to do, however, is figure out what they can do to teach others around them how to lead.
In the same way that those who want to learn to lead often consume a lot of material (e.g., books and videos) on how to be a leader, one of the ways that some people teach others to lead is by recommending a whole bunch of material on leadership skills. Former Vice President Al Gore was known for requiring anyone who joined his cabinet read Warren Bennis’s On Becoming A Leader (1989). But do these reading lists do much good? The short answer is not really, unless they are part of a more comprehensive program that helps the person in question understand how to apply that knowledge. Otherwise all you’re doing is help them fill up their bookshelf.
A great augmentation to a leadership reading list is a mentoring program. Just like in the self-directed approaches, this is where an experienced leader provides one-on-one guidance to someone trying to develop their skills. These relationships can be either formal or informal. The informal relationships tend to simply evolve over time, while the formal relationships have clear start dates (and sometimes end dates) and specified goals. They are often preceded by rigorous matching processes to make sure the right mentor is with the right mentee. To be most effective, however, these activities need to be part of a holistic leadership development program.
To reiterate what we discussed last time, we are not talking about some half-day pep rally. We are talking about complete programs that include self-paced learning, formal classes and mentorship over the course of a given period of time (usually anywhere from six months to two years). While there is no question that well developed and well run programs can be extremely impactful and meaningful, one of the biggest challenges for most organizations is deciding who should participate. While it would be great if anyone who wants to learn to be a better leader could participate, that wide net approach is often cost prohibitive. As such, most organizations have to limit participation to only those who have a high likelihood of becoming very successful leaders.
The question is how do we accurately pick the people who are likely to be successful leaders? The most common approach is to pick people who have been successful as individual contributors. The paradox is that sometimes the skills, aptitudes and attitudes that make one very successful as an individual contributor may not be the same ones that make one successful as a leader. As such, we have to look for people who not only have done well in the past, but also those who may do well in the future.
Some people like to use psychometric assessments to identify those with high leadership aptitude. As an organizational psychologist I am a fan of this approach, but some organizations don’t want to investment in the due diligence required to make sure that these tools are used in a way that differentiates without discriminating. An alternate approach is to qualitatively define the common traits of successful leaders in your organization. This can include attributes such as communication, teamwork, and organizational citizenship behaviors. When these are clearly defined, it becomes easier to identify those individual contributors who might be good leaders. More importantly it becomes easier to understand what kinds of leadership capabilities to develop. And knowing that is the most important part of teaching others how to be leaders.
Bennis, W. (1989). On becoming a leader. Reading, MA: & Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
Related Benedictine Programs
If you’re interested in learning more about what it takes to be a good leader check out Benedictine’s Management and Organizational Behavior program, which focuses on addressing the human side of business including leadership strategies and skills. Benedictine University also offers Bachelors degree programs. To learn how an online degree from Benedictine can help you hone your leadership skills talk to a Program Manager today.
About the Author
Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with seventeen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture, and Hewlett-Packard.