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Leadership Development Isn’t for Executives Only

Leaders at Every Level logoWhen asked about the “best” age for people to receive leadership development, CEOs in one study gave the average age of 19. 

Sadly, the average age when people actually receive leadership development is 44. That’s 25 years later than the ideal… 25 years of making mistakes, guessing, and missing opportunities to lead more effectively.

Here’s the disconnect. Most organizations reserve leadership development for those who have already ascended into the upper ranks. They climb the ladder and “earn” their senior-level roles by demonstrating strong technical or functional skills, by managing, and by outlasting their peers. 

All too often, the lack of leadership development is exposed at what would otherwise be a career zenith. Instead of reaching that zenith, the gaps derail careers and impair legacies in the making.  

If You Wait Too Long, It Will Be Too Late

Over-reliance on technical skills and authority will only get you so far. As you build a reputation and career founded in management and specialized skills, you’re also building habits that will be hard to break. You’re missing out on the soft skills and leadership behaviors that would make you more well-rounded. 

Figures walking and talking The longer you wait, the harder it will be to value and acquire skills like that these that are in the realm of leadership (rather than management):

  • Getting things done through influence (rather than authority)
  • Inspiring others to strive for new possibilities (vs. focusing solely on the tasks of today)
  • Innovating to stay a step ahead of the competition (instead of being in reactive mode)
  • Connecting with others in meaningful ways (rather than seeing people as their job titles)
  • Looking at the big picture (instead of getting caught up in the minutiae) 

The biggest obstacle to leadership development in the senior ranks is the illusion that it’s not necessary. 

Think about senior executives who have been steadily promoted and rewarded for industry knowledge, technical or functional expertise, and the ability to get things done. They are successful sans leadership development. It’s hard to argue with that success. 

What’s more, these are very busy people doing important work. They’re needed in meetings, have packed calendars, and are responsible for solving big problems every day. 

Add to the mix that leadership development is often seen as nebulous and indulgent. Most people think leadership characteristics are something you’re born with, so these successful people must already have “the right stuff.” 

If they’ve got the right stuff, are busy, and have already succeeded, why wouldn’t they think of leadership development as optional and (for them) a waste of time? 

There’s one other factor that most wouldn’t care to admit. Without leadership development, there’s a “fear of exposure” that keeps many from pursuing it. They know, deep down, that they are missing some abilities to inspire others… that they’re lacking in some of the qualities commonly associated with effective leadership… and that making big changes will make them feel vulnerable. 

BTW, Being a “Senior Manager” Doesn’t Automatically Make You a Leader

Organizations also do senior managers a grave disservice by calling them “leaders.” 

Leader isn’t a job title. Being one of the top-ranking people in an organization may get you a spot on the so-called “Senior Leadership Team,” but these misnomers don’t make you a true leader. 

Leadership is evidenced by followership. If people comply because they have to, submit to your authority because they’re afraid not to, or passively do the bare minimums while grumbling behind your back, they’re not genuinely following. And you’re not leading. 

It’s not uncommon to see members of the “Senior Leadership Team” behaving as Command-and-Control dictators instead of leading people. 

It’s also not uncommon to see people with no authority, no senior title, and no management experience showing up as leaders. These are the people who have followers, the ones who inspire and motivate their colleagues, and the ones that others watch and want to please. 

When senior managers think “leadership” is about power and position, they lose their power and diminish their positional authority. They abdicate leadership instead of stepping into it.   

Too few executives know what leadership really is. They have a vague concept but can’t distinguish leadership from management. They don’t know the evidence-based framework of behaviors that make leaders effective. 

Too few leadership development professionals and HR departments adhere to a rigorous, evidence-based approach to leadership development. Instead, they provide a mixed bag of experiences that touch on management, networking, industry knowledge, personality profiling, and community service experiences. No wonder there are doubts about the value of it!

Quality leadership development is:

  • Based on behaviors that are proven and accessible to all
  • Different from management training
  • Focused on leading, not on functional or industry or community experiences
  • Practical, not conceptual
  • Available early in a career, not exclusively reserved for people who are set in their ways already

Allocating Resources for Leadership Development 

Making leadership development available early may sound impractical or costly. It’s not. 

Here’s what costs MUCH more and is impractical (despite being a common practice). When senior-level roles open up in many organizations, big money is spent on conducting an executive search, interviewing candidates, creating relocation packages, and taking huge risks on “fit” when making a hiring decision. 

The money spent to fill just one executive role from outside the organization could easily cover the cost of developing DOZENS of employees as leaders. 

And there’s no valid reason to wait until people are already in management roles or senior-level roles. Leadership at every level enhances employee engagement, ennobles employees, and distributes leadership in ways that strengthen organizations immeasurably. Building bench strength starts early and should be a constant priority. 

Why not make leadership development accessible to everyone? If you have leaders at every level who are serving as examples and mentors, you’ll create a culture of continual development. If you have affordable and routine programs for ongoing leadership development, you won’t have a never-ending battle for budget. 

Whatever you do, don’t succumb to the temptation to use some sort of 9-box model to determine who has the “potential” and gets handpicked for leadership development. It’s ludicrous to think any person can accurately gauge the potential of another, and processes like this invite unconscious bias and favoritism. 

Please note that leadership development need not be intensive, time-consuming and high dollar. The week-long experiences at Ivy League schools (“executive development”) aren’t suitable for everyone. The year-long community programs offered by your Chamber aren’t focused on the core tenets of leadership. 

For leadership at every level, self-leadership, and introductions to leadership, there are excellent courses like Self Empowered that are affordable, require minimal time, and will yield long-term benefits for everyone involved.