Should you really build leaders at every level of your organization?

November 22, 2020

Originally published November 17, 2020 on Forbes

[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.

Leading the self – This is all about personal and emotional awareness. It’s about values clarification and identification. It’s about understanding tensions and tradeoffs and developing a point of view on what matters most to an organization and the individual person. As an employee does this work, they get a better understanding of where there is and isn’t alignment, teeing up important decisions. Self and organizational awareness will evolve over a career. Stressing the importance of this early sets the stage for future leadership development.

Leading others – As employees move into increasingly larger managerial roles, they must remove themselves from more and more of the daily work, trusting that to the members of their teams. Doing this can be difficult for many who have been used to having their hands directly on the dials of the work to be completed. The previous self-awareness work becomes a critical foundation to making this leap and bringing out the best in others to get the jobs done effectively.

Leading the organization – This is the senior leadership of an organization. It requires setting vision and direction and making difficult tradeoff calls at the enterprise, industry, and often global level; it’s what we traditionally think of as “leadership.” Anyone who excels here does so because of the leadership development work they did at the lowest levels of an organization on up. They succeed because they and others saw themselves as a leader long before they were bestowed with the formal title.

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. Start with small awareness building early. Invest smartly in leadership building and a leadership culture all along the way. The most capable will rise to top for senior leadership roles. But more importantly everyone will know what leadership looks like at all levels, distributing the heavy lifting of leadership throughout the organization.