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Leaders are grown, not found

The business world is in the midst of a war – a war for leadership talent. Apparently there is a shortage of capable people out there, creating a recruitment and retention frenzy. Where should we look for them? What should we be looking for? How will we know when we have found a good one?

I stopped looking years ago. Not because I think the task is too difficult. On the contrary, I think the world is awash with good people who could make great leaders. The problem is we often don’t recognize leadership potential for what it is. Why? Because of the mythology that surrounds leadership. We think that leaders come ready-made, that they are born that way and look the part. Leaders stand out from the crowd and are easily spotted. So naturally, it’s just a matter of going out and finding them.

Really? My experience tells me that leaders are grown, not found. They might have some sound qualities, like a keen interest in their profession and the desire to change things for the better, but other than that, they seem as ordinary as most other people when they start out.

I figured this out this early in my career when touring Australia to select officer trainees for the Navy and Air Force. We were searching for people capable of professional training, an interest in working with people and an alignment of values appropriate for military service. There was no shortage of good candidates.

We did not follow a leadership model or look for particular characteristics. We didn’t even try to predict which of the new trainees would reach the highest ranks. The approach was to get them started, provide plenty of training, ensure excellent mentoring from the senior ranks, and provide an abundance of experience. By age 25, an officer could expect to captain a patrol boat or manage aircraft loading and logistics. They simply needed to learn what leaders do, and grow steadily in confidence.

I am still convinced that the best way to populate an organisation with great leaders is to grow them. Select people who care about their profession and have a desire to lead, and provide plenty of support as they develop into the role.

This approach is not usual in most organisations. Often the people already employed and available for promotion are rejected as not good enough for leadership. They are turned down because they seem to lack confidence or conviction, do not have the right look, or fail to display the kind of personality leaders are supposed to have.

Or worse, potential leaders are discouraged from stepping up because they don’t feel they are special in the way leaders are meant to be. They buy into the hype about the ‘ideal’ characteristics and personality profiles that ‘real’ leaders have and conclude they don’t measure up.

So for various reasons many people who would become great leaders never get to the starting gates. Sometimes those making the selection decisions have fixed views about who fits the brief, setting the bar impossibly high. At other times it is because good people filter themselves out.

And who is most likely to miss out because they are not ‘leader-like’ enough? Women, because we ‘know’ that men are more natural as leaders. People with visible disabilities, because we ‘know’ they will not have the physical presence to demand respect. People from minority ethnic groups because we ‘know’ they will find it difficult to fit the culture. And plenty of men too, when they don’t fit the stereotypes.

There is yet another downside to the mythology that leaders come ready-made. It is this. Once appointed to the new role as a first-level leader or even further up the career ladder, the person is expected to find their feet with minimal help. How else can we explain the appalling lack of resources provided to new leaders in most organisations? There might be a bit of management training or mentoring further down the track, but for the first weeks and months, they are usually on their own. Most are dropped into the job and left to sink or swim.

It’s time to rethink the way we transition people from purely professional roles and into positions of leadership. First, we need to acknowledge that leadership is not easy. Nor is choosing people with special leadership characteristics the answer – there are few people out there with ready-made leadership ability. Most new leaders start with some good qualities but they need time to grow into the role. We should provide support, advice and mentoring so that they can become the best they can be as leaders.

I assist emerging leaders to become confident, credible leaders who inspire others. Talk to me if you want to do more to build the up-and-coming leadership talent in your organisation.