If you’re looking in the right places, such as Forbes, Huffington Post, TED, Harvard Business Review, NPR and the like, there is a heightened focus on the need to “prepare leaders” for the challenges of running businesses in today’s global marketplace wrought with highly complex, intensely competitive and rapidly changing environments. This target audience can read about leadership, enroll in a course, attend a conference, work with an executive coach … the resources seem infinite and time is of the essence.
As part of my own career progression and in working with my employees as well as consulting for clients, I have spent time considering what makes a leader. Why do some individuals intrinsically desire to be a leader? What does one do/exude (or not do) to be labeled among the “high potentials” in their workplace? How is one identified to fill a key leadership position in a carefully designed succession plan that companies must have to ensure continuity and effective performance?
Curiously, I find myself more interested lately in the other side of that coin – individual contributors – what motivates them, how they view their own leadership potential, and ultimately what professional development opportunities exist to support their non-management career progression.
A Leader Defined
At a very high level, let’s consider what makes a leader. There are definitions galore, and I happen to gravitate towards this simplified perspective from U.S. President John Quincy Adams:
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
While title alone does not ensure followers, generally formal leadership positions such as President of a country, a military general or a member of the C-suite fit this description, as long as behavior is in accordance with the expectations of leadership. By contrast, there are many examples within organizations of people that others follow - their advice and their actions – regardless of the position. It’s an even longer list if you consider influences outside the workplace.
In this case, I’m also not talking about managers, given the assumption that managers have followers (unless they’re incompetent). I’m referring to people who don’t necessarily have authority over another, but have influence. These are mentors, advisors, team leads, project managers, and others. They likely possess a functional/technical expertise – i.e., they have something others want and they also exude other qualities that draw people to them:
Admittedly, these traits make quite the package, and a good (informal or formal) leader may have most or all. This particular compilation is a partial list from a 2012 article in Forbes that defined the top 10 qualities that make a great leader. I left out “ability to delegate” when talking about informal leaders as that is less relevant to this discussion (though not entirely irrelevant as a skill).
The Non-Management Track
Results from a study published in Gallup Business Journal (March 25, 2014) state that “about one in 10 people possess the talent to manage” and attribute this as a partial and significant explanation for low employee engagement. As a manager, I was often asked by my direct reports for career advice on whether I thought they would make a good manager. I usually responded to their question with another question about their objective. Were they pursuing a title and additional compensation, a new challenge, or perhaps a calling toward the operational components and developmental priorities of coaching others that the managerial role typically entails? Too often I saw people who were very good at their particular jobs assume the next logical step was management. But, not only are there fewer management spots (typical employee to manager ratio being 10:1) – i.e., we can’t all be managers - but being a top performer in a functional area does not automatically make you a good manager.
Some have tried management and either it was decided for them or they decided for themselves that it wasn’t a good fit after all. Although it sometimes appears that certain people inherently make good managers, admittedly there are also those who adapt well to the new responsibilities and challenges with structured management training and guidance.
A third category includes those who choose not to pursue management as a career path. In my experience, this can carry with it negative perceptions that the individual is not ambitious, primarily when they’re seen as having potential. And yet their colleagues may consciously or subconsciously gravitate towards them as unofficial leaders who they trust and want to follow for knowledge, guidance, alliances, etc., which might even be lacking in their formal leaders.
Raising the Bar
Even in organizations large enough to have a Learning & Development (L&D) team, there is rarely an official career trajectory and associated learning plan for the non-management track. Mostly we see training initiatives devoted to new hires, new managers, and high potentials. . Individuals’ choices might be relegated to a smattering of random or open courses in an LMS or perhaps they take the initiative to pursue learning opportunities at a university or through an association.
But the programs that we see marketed (internally or externally) as leadership development are targeted to those who are in or being groomed for formal leadership positions. The context for discussion, exercises, reflection and so on are typically geared towards decisions and challenges related to supervisees.
Many companies have L&D priorities, but rather than continuing to focus on a fairly narrow audience, I believe it’s crucial to figure out how to adapt programs to have broader relevance to an expanded definition of “high potentials.” The capacity for self-leadership should be understood and facilitated as a primary step that emphasizes inward reflection to enhance external interactions. It may be a precursor to formal leadership, and is still of tremendous value on its own.
When the bar is raised in terms of self leadership competencies, individuals, teams and the enterprise are better off. In this way, we expand our bench, we encourage growth, and we nurture the hidden, subtle or overt potential that exists. As a result, organizations are “led” by more confident and competent communicators, whose focus and trustworthiness are highly valued. Everyone becomes an agent of change, thus preventing extinction and ensuring the company’s success over mere survival.