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Developing Leaders: What are the Benefits and How to Do It

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Who is a leader? What does a leader do?

Qualities of effective leaders:

The importance of good leaders in your company

Identifying leaders

Developing new leaders

7 strategies to develop potential leaders:

Who is a leader? What does a leader do?

Over generations, the definition of what makes a leader changes. Is a leader a leader, or a manager? Should all managers be leaders? For those who think they should, the next question is how to develop new leaders from the raw stuff of the workforce and under-developed managers. 

In the multi-generational workplace today, there is, no doubt, a range of definitions of what makes a good leader and how to develop them. In general, the qualities of good leadership include diligence, integrity, ethics, and empathy. 

Identifying high-potentials, and investing resources in developing them, has been a trend in business for years. Yet, the truth is that most companies need more employees showing leadership at different levels and in more different settings than ever – not just a select few. In his book Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler describes the principle of fluid leadership exercised by the U.S. Navy Seals when in the line of fire: the leader is whoever knows what to do next. 

Implicit for the Seals is that everyone on the team trusts both the competence and intent of every other team member to lead because they have so much shared experience through training. In business, we don’t have a shared training regime. Leadership is the way we behave to earn the trust of our teams. 

Who is a leader? The person who leads. 

How that works in your teams and departments might be tricky to figure out, but it is worth considering. Businesses are, in their own way, in the line of fire. Navigating it requires agility, and agility requires decentralized leadership. 

In this article, we zoom in on qualities of leaders who are most likely to be successful in the rapidly-changing world, doubly disrupted by automation and COVID-19. We also look at how you can spot this leadership potential in the wild and how you can develop these qualities in the leaders you already have.

Qualities of effective leaders:

  • Personal mastery. Emotional intelligence, emotional regulation, and high self-awareness are necessary elements for effective leaders. As leaders clarify what they stand for, their values and what matters most to them, they gain mastery of themselves. Then they are primed to lead others by example and by modelling.

    John Maxwell said, “You cannot give what you do not have.” Knowing what matters to them and mastering emotions makes leaders more resilient in the unpredictable world – something that’s a constant in present times, and is helpful when leaders are also figuring their way out of the dark. 

  • Master storytelling. Facts tell, stories sell. Leaders, like sales professionals, are responsible for selling. What are leaders selling, you may ask. Visions, dreams, directions – all critical in today’s world.
    In organizations, adapting to the long-tailed recovery from COVID-19 means constantly setting new directions and evolving visions. Leaders need to be able to bring people together around a vision and draw out their commitment and best work. Hence, storytelling becomes an essential skill set.

  • Empathetic and human-centered. As the present and future are strewn with uncertainty and rapid changes. An effective leader unites people and brings them safely through change, as smoothly as possible.
    Kurt Vonnegut said, “I am a human being, not a human doing.” Leaders increasingly require coaching skills to partner and support a fellow human being.The new era is about conversations between human beings. Bringing the human-centeredness back to our conversations and being empathetic to the other person’s challenges can help make constant change less of a struggle.
  • Innovative, strategic, and nurturing. Companies perennially say they want a culture of innovation. More than having an innovative leader, that means having leaders who can draw out, support, and shape innovation from their teams. Leaders need to provide a direction. They provide the clarity of a shared outcome that guides, motivates, and inspires. They also analyze and interpret reality.
    Is the leader to determine the way forward, or step aside and let the experts in their team figure out the way? I often find that, while they might not be as well-versed in subject-matter areas, good leaders add tremendous value in seeing connections -- cause-and-effect, dependencies, and patterns -- between components of the system because of their experience and approach.

An expert may bring deep expertise and innovation, a leader brings wisdom and cognitive agility, something that’s irreplaceable by technology.

The importance of good leaders in your company

Beyond a few notable exceptions, most companies view leaders as an unquestionable need. Despite a few notable exceptions -- The Morning Star Company (a tomato processor), Valve (gaming), and Zappos (shoes) -- good leadership is still critical. Organizations don’t need more bad leaders. 

Why are good leaders important to business? 

  • The average business lifespan is decreasing. According to a 2018 Innosights report, the lifespan of S&P 500 companies is less than half of what it was in 1997 and continues to shrink. We can expect these big companies to last for 12 years or so in 2027, compared to 30 years in 1997.
    Good leaders can harness the creativity, innovation and empathy of the workforce to stay connected with the consumer. This helps them stay ahead of the competition by coming up with better products and relevant solutions.
  • The workforce (and customer base) is increasingly diverse. Most companies face an increasingly diverse set of customer needs and preferences for value and have access to a broader set of talent to deliver it. There are five generations in the workplace. Equity, equality and social justice issues are coming to the fore.
    Good leaders recognize the value of the diverse experiences, skills and perspectives of their workforce and can harness it to create better solutions for their customers. Synergizing the best across generations, abilities, and backgrounds will help companies continue to find new ways to deliver value to customers.
  • Workforce expectations have changed. The younger generations, who are the future of work, have been vocal about wanting purpose and meaning, to be developed, included, and coached. Millennials constitute more than 50% of the workforce and the proportion is growing. Many older workers want the same.
    A leader who is empathetic and human-centered adjusts for the needs of a changing workforce amid changing conditions rather than relying on a few “tried-and-true” leadership tropes. Good leaders respect and develop their people as unique individuals with unique needs. This allows them to draw out the best in people, enabling more meaningful work, and inspire purpose to mobilize the whole team to work together toward greater outcomes.

Identifying leaders

While organizations need leadership everywhere, identifying those with natural strengths and developing their leadership skills can help create leverage.

How do you spot a natural leader? First, where do you look? Internal or external, look for teams or groups that are doing better than expected under the conditions. Look for teams that seem to have loyalty or a strong connection. Look for teams that have launched many great contributors. Within these teams, someone is doing something right to make the whole more than the sum of its parts. 

Within these teams, look for the signs of behaviors that support trust, productivity, and engagement for others:

  1. Empathy and compassion. How do they engage with others (peers, those who report to them and their line managers, skip level managers and stakeholders)? Look for indicators – in speech and action – that indicate that they see various perspectives, understand differing motivations, and think about benefits for all. Natural leaders don’t just recognize different needs but also coach and help others get what they need.
  2. Emotional regulation. How do they perform under stress, short timelines, and complexity. Do they try to keep their cool, and stay solution-focused and forward-looking? Natural leaders try to give others a sense of clarity or security amid the uncertainty. 
  3. Effective listening and observation. How do they communicate? Do they try to include everyone, creating common ground, fostering goodwill and understanding? Are they using language that unites or divides? Do they seem sensitive to the room, knowing when to challenge and when to step back? Natural leaders navigate the ‘unseen’ and try to defuse high tension situations.
  4. Adaptability. Do they demonstrate executive skills like self-management, managing competing priorities, adopting zoomed-in and zoomed-out perspectives? Can they let go of perfection in favor of completion? Natural leaders know that different situations require different approaches. 
  5. Systems thinking. Do they exhibit good thinking, discernment and understanding of the complex system? Natural leaders are observant and comfortable with grey area and try to see how details affect the bigger picture. 
  6. Humility and growth mindset. Are they willing to learn from others and change their position when new information emerges? Natural leaders recognize how much they don’t know.  

Developing new leaders

It should be obvious by now that leaders aren’t just born and there’s no single leadership mold. We all have leadership potential in certain circumstances, and, in a complex world, companies have need of  different types of leadership. With opportunities and the right support, through the combination of crucible and coaching, future leaders will emerge from everywhere. 

7 strategies to develop potential leaders:

  1. Coach and mentor. Leaders of today must bring a coaching mindset. New leaders will benefit from a senior leader whose coaching and mentoring of the new leader exemplifies how they will need to coach and mentor their own teams.
    While working with potential leaders from a different generation, bear in mind that the motivations are different. Even the definition of ‘leadership’ may differ. Ask open questions from your potential leader. Discuss what good leadership means and what behaviors point to that.  Share your experiences and perspective to add color and depth to the discussion.
    Link your discussions with the demands of the role, how leadership can show up as the potential leader carries out his day-to-day duties. This type of coaching  will help the potential leader gain confidence and maturity and be ready for a bigger role when the time comes.
  1. Anchor in values and meaning. What makes some leaders better than others seems intangible, coming from the coherence of the leaders actions and words with their own and the organization’s values.
    Talk about your own core values and how you manifest them. Encourage the new leader to explore their values. It isn’t always easy to make the connection between what we believe and what we do – make values part of the conversation throughout a leader’s development.
  2. Emphasize personal growth and soft skills. New leaders focused on developing management skills and taking on bigger responsibilities can become overwhelmed or over-orient around goals. Amp up “soft” skills and creativity. Creativity helps leaders solve problems and turn challenges into opportunities.
  3. Debrief and reflect. Guided discussion and reflection can draw out and consolidate learnings. With the execution and completion of every project/task, have a discussion with the potential leader.
    Often in a corporate setting, employees are preoccupied in ‘conquering challenge after challenge,’ jumping from one task to another. There are many learning points from things that went well, things that didn’t go so well and the learning would be lost, or be accidental if the process is not led.
  4. Ask their aspirations and design stretch assignments. Check in with the potential leader how he would like to grow his career. As the motivations of younger leaders are different, what a more mature leader perceives as ‘success’ and ‘growth’ would be different.
    Engage the potential leader in conversations and design assignments that helps him grow in the direction that will be win-win for both employee and organization.
  5. Give constructive feedback informally and regularly. Research has shown that the fixed cycle of formal conversations does not work. Employees now want to be involved and developed, making informal, regular feedback more effective.
    Be observant of your potential leader and look for opportunities to reinforce positive leadership behaviors more than opportunities for correction. Describe specifically what made it good, so the leader will know what to replicate in the future. Vague comments will often get misconstrued due to different bias and upbringing. Do not shy away from giving critical feedback – it might just be the feedback your potential leader needs.
  6. Create an open channel to ask for support. Some leaders give stretch assignments that are too far beyond the abilities of the employees. One question to ask yourself is “am I setting up my employee to succeed or to fail?”
    Giving tasks that are too difficult without the right support can be demotivating and have costly consequences. In academic learning, there is a zone of proximal development (Vygotsky) that makes learning enjoyable and attainable. Apply the same principle and provide appropriate support. Check in with the potential leader often and ask what support is needed. Be accessible so that your potential leader can thrive and grow.
  7. Offer executive coaching to develop presence and confidence. Leadership, even when unconventional or service-oriented, is often, inevitably, highly visible. One of the common challenges for leaders is not being ready for the bigger role when it finally comes, sometimes years later. Individuals who have been ambitious and motivated in their work may still lack the benefit of thoughtful processing that helps them make meaning and consolidate learning from past experiences.
    Coaching will support potential leaders to grow mentally, emotionally and in their leadership to be on par with the expectations of their role. The best investment an organisation can make is to invest in its people – ensuring that high performing ones who are aligned with the organisational culture thrives and matures together with the organisation.