Should you really build leadership at every level of your org?

June 20, 2016

[Spoiler alert: Yes!! If you don’t you’re dead in this economy.]

I debated this question with the COO of medium-sized technology firm recently.

His take was that while leadership at every level sounded nice, in reality it was impractical and unwise. His argument surrounded five reasons:

  1. Some people don’t have the skills to lead
  2. Some people don’t want to lead
  3. If everyone thinks they’re a leader too many people are directing things and not enough people are doing things
  4. Having too many leaders creates confusion
  5. Developing leaders is a resource-intensive task and, given reasons 1-4, not a good investment except for high potentials

I understand his logic, but it has a flaw; it defines leadership too narrowly.

Too often we cleave to an antiquated notion of leadership as visionary direction-setting and fearlessly leading the troops into future with a few big strategic decisions. Yes, that is one type of leadership, but it’s grounded in a set of assumptions about how the world works (military-industrial and command-and-control) that are rapidly changing. When the world moved more slowly a few big decisions at the top could legitimately set a trajectory for years to come. In this day and age, that’s a recipe for obsolescence.

Here’s a broader and more useful definition of leadership nowadays: critical and collaborative thinking and action given what you see in front you.

You want your C-Suite doing this, but you also want the lowest-level person in your organization doing it too. The scope and impact of their decisions will obviously differ, but the general mindset remains the same—we need everyone motivated to solve problems. Building critical and collaborative thinkers and doers at one level strengthens their ability to do the same at the next level and the next level.

Here’s a practical idea. Define what leadership looks like, as a mindset and set of behaviors, at every level of your organization. Create a curriculum that builds on itself as employees grow. First it’s about leading the self, then leading others, then leading the org. At each level touch upon the other levels so people see the bigger picture of leadership in the org. Have people understand what’s going to be required of them before they get there. The smart ones will start picking it up themselves.

Don’t wait to teach leadership until people are “ready” and somehow “worthy of investment.” If you do, you’ll never end up with who you need when you need them. Invest smartly in leadership building and a leadership culture all along the way. It’s the foundation of competitive advantage these days.