Who Is Eligible to Be a Leader?
It’s inevitable. When planning for a leadership development program begins, one of the first questions is “Who should participate?” The underlying question, though, is “Who’s eligible to be a leader?” (and therefore “deserves” leadership development)?
This common thought progression is ill-informed by misperceptions about what it means to lead, who it is that leads, and what the purpose of leadership development is. Let’s address each of those misperceptions in turn.
Leader Is NOT a Job Title
Coordinator. Supervisor. Manager. Director. VP. SVP. Executive. President. These are all job titles. Each represents a certain level, a degree of authority, and a set of responsibilities.
None of these titles automatically bestows their holders with leadership abilities.
In recent years, the word “leader” has been artfully woven into numerous job titles:
Supervisors are often referred to as Team Leads
Managers are now called People Leaders
The C-Suite is now known as the Senior Leadership Team
Project Leaders, Meeting Leaders, Task Force Leaders…
Here’s the problem. Leader is not a job title. It doesn’t have a formal definition that quantifies its responsibilities relative to other roles in the organization. Replacing “manager” with “leader” doesn’t change the job or the person in that job.
What’s more, when people have to be identified as leaders before they’re considered eligible to lead, it limits organic leadership.
It also sets people up for disappointment. In one mid-size tech organization, the “Senior Leadership Team” received this comment on an anonymous survey: “They aren’t senior in any way but on paper. They aren’t operating as a team. Most of all, they aren’t leaders and we’re not getting any leadership at all from this group of big-mouth bullies.”
That organization isn’t an aberration. That commenter isn’t alone in feeling this way about people at the top of the org chart. These are major issues that need to be taken seriously. Part of the problem, though, is that the nomenclature implies a promise. By calling themselves the “Senior Leadership Team,” this group of executives has set expectations that they aren’t living up to.
This happens quite often with “People Leaders,” too. When organizations start referring this way to all managers who have direct reports, it suggests that something extra will be provided. Not surprisingly, people expect more leadership from “People Leaders.” Few organizations, though, actually back these title changes up with leadership development. They’re inadvertently emphasizing a gap and certainly not closing the gap by retooling the titles.
To manage means “to handle.” That’s from the word’s origin, and it’s the same root word as for “mano” which means “hand” in Spanish. Managers, at all levels, handle the work that needs to be done (often through other people). Senior managers handle higher-level work than frontline managers. Nonetheless, the title accurately conveys that a manager is responsible for handling what’s in their scope of responsibility.
To lead means “to guide.” From the Middle English word, “leden,” this word originally meant to guide someone from one place to another. People need a guide when they’re going someplace new or different. They’ll only follow a guide when that new or different place is appealing to them. At times, they’ll need the guide to clear the path, anticipate and avoid dangers, and help them prepare for the challenges of the journey.
Clearly, these are 2 different offerings. Employees want and need both managing and leading, in the right measure and at the right time. Creative job titles don’t transform managers into leaders. It takes leadership development to define and build leadership.
That development is separate from development as a manager. Leadership development happens in youth organizations, within sports teams, in clubs and classrooms and churches and families. Many are exposed to some leadership development long before they ever take their first full-time job. So why do we wait for an official title or job level before we recognize this development?
You’re Already Eligible to Be a Leader
No matter what your job title is, you are already a leader. You have, in some way, already been an example and guide to others. You’re eligible to be a leader because you’ve already been one.
Leaders have followers. If you have ever shown someone how to do something, made it easier for others by clarifying and paving the way, championed an idea and enlisted others’ support, or encouraged others to pursue a goal, then you probably gained a follower. Others followed your lead and joined you or emulated your actions.
That’s leadership. There’s no title, no permission, no special qualifications, and no formal crowning required to lead.
You are eligible to be a leader, and you always have been. The same is true for every single person in your organization.
Oftentimes, people suppress their leadership because they believe it won’t be welcome or appropriate. They don’t want to overstep the boundaries of the organizational hierarchy. It’s unnatural and a loss for all when this happens.
Organic leadership bubbles up from everyone. People from all levels contribute, sometimes as leaders and other times as followers. It’s not pre-determined or formalized. It’s not competitive or ego-driven. It’s natural.
You’ve probably seen this in your circle of friends more often than you’ve seen it in the workplace. At work, the artificial and misguided ideas about who’s eligible to lead interfere so much that there’s usually a lack of leadership. Everyone's waiting around for the management team to lead. As you already know, sometimes they don’t.
The ideal, of course, is a culture of leadership at every level. That’s because:
Managers who are also leaders are more effective than managers who do not know how to lead. Anyone with direct reports should simultaneously be a manager of work AND a leader of people. Managers who frequently demonstrate leadership behaviors are managers with higher levels of employee engagement (which translates into higher retention, increased productivity, strong customer satisfaction, and better profitability overall).
Senior managers who are also leaders strike a balance between setting the course and ensuring that the work being done stays true to that path. They are visionary and inspiring while also being grounded and realistic for a moderated approach. They mobilize others and unify teams to bring everyone into the bigger picture.
Peers who are also leaders bolster each other’s spirits and create shared accountabilities. They make the workday and the work itself more enjoyable. They teach each other, share encouragement, and push one another to higher performance. They unleash each other’s potential as they collaborate and strive together for success.
Co-workers who are also leaders provide examples up, down, and across the organization. Silos are often protected by egoists who measure their own success by job level. Healthy organizations, by contrast, have interdepartmental mentoring, cross-functional training, taskforce compositions that draw from a mix of job levels and divisions, and informal relationships where people lead without waiting for an appointment to do so.
To create and preserve this kind of culture, you need just three ingredients:
Senior-level support for leadership at every level.
Willingness of employees at every level to see themselves as leaders (not as managers!).
Leadership development opportunities.
The Point of Leadership Development Is…
Develop means to bring out the capabilities or possibilities, to bring to a more effective state, to cause growth or expansion, or to evolve.
To bring out the capabilities or possibilities of people and of the organization as a whole, leadership development should be broadly accessible.
For those who are already in senior roles, the aim of leadership development would be to bring to a more effective state.
The organization itself benefits from leadership development because it will cause growth or expansion. The organization will evolve as leadership at every level becomes the norm. Longer term, the organization will be packed with leaders who are ready for next-level roles, expanded capacity, innovations, and development of additional capabilities.
This is the point of leadership development. This is what justifies the investment in leadership learning and the time spent in workshops or experiences where leadership behaviors are practiced.
With a company-wide focus on leadership development, everyone benefits. Including everyone, from all levels of the org chart, impacts the culture and employee experience in positive, meaningful ways that translate to real ROI – reduced expenses, higher profits, and advantages over the competition.
Sure, some will benefit more than others. The managers who learn to simultaneously manage work AND lead people will become much more effective. Their direct reports will become much more engaged. The frontline contributors who are rewarded by the opportunity to learn and grow will also benefit tremendously.
Here’s who won’t benefit as much from leadership development:
People who don’t see the value of ongoing development
Senior managers who aren’t open to making changes in themselves
Managers who are too busy to fully participate in development activities
Anyone who believes they’ve already fully developed as a leader
Employees who feel their leadership has been discouraged (“stay in your lane”)
When you create a culture of leadership at every level, some of the folks described in the bullets above will self-select out of the organization. (That may be a good thing!) Others will “see the light” and come to value this opportunity for growth. It won’t happen overnight, but in a matter of months you’ll see a shift.
When you see everyone as a leader, you’ll be dignifying and ennobling employees throughout the organization. This creates a sense of belonging and inclusion. In turn, you’ll notice higher levels of commitment. Some will surprise you with a renewed sense of personal purpose as they step into their full potential as a leaders.