By William Craig
It’s practically a cliche by now to suggest that leaders aren’t born — they’re made. More accurately, we must learn to be leaders.
And that means encouraging great leadership qualities — and investing in tomorrow’s leaders — is absolutely critical for those of us in the business community. True leaders are constantly growing and learning and encouraging others to do the same. To realize this kind of wonderful domino effect in your own organization, here are a few points to ponder about how to renew your investment in leadership.
1. Define Success Objectively
Investing in leadership can result in a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy if you’re not careful. Those of us who already enjoy positions of power are often guilty of handpicking and grooming leaders who are already, or who we wish to become, more like us, to see the world the way we do and react as we would.
The problem with this, of course, is we tend to either over- or undervalue our own skills as employees and leaders. We don’t often have an unclouded impression of our strengths and weaknesses. As a result, if we define success only in terms of how we understand and have witnessed it, the diversity of tomorrow’s leaders will greatly suffer.
Each leadership role should feature an assessment tool or a set of criteria that are as transparent as they are collectively devised. Translation — grooming tomorrow’s leaders requires putting our heads together and determining which personality traits, intrinsic qualities and hard skill sets will best position our organizations for success after the baton of power changes hands.
2. Assign Work That Challenges New Leaders and Inspires Creativity
Identifying future leaders is an exciting and rewarding process. It’s probably not every day we come across somebody we’d be willing to let fill our shoes, or our office in the C-suite, after we’ve left. But when we do find that potential leader, either as a new hire or as an established name in the company with sky-high potential, make sure you invest in their future by insisting they spread their wings early and often.
What does this look like? It looks like not wasting any time sending them worthy challenges. Every position has a learning curve, of course, but tomorrow’s leaders can’t hone their skills and develop their leadership approach and “voice” if we coddle them with busywork.
So? Send them challenging work. Fill their plate with opportunities to educate themselves, learn new skills, explore the company and its processes, and generally get their hands dirty thinking outside the box. Innovation isn’t supposed to come easily, and gratification was never supposed to be instant. Real inventiveness can only come about when we try, fail and then try something else.
3. Commit to Cross-Training and Job Rotation Whenever You Can
As we discussed a moment ago, exposing your most promising recruits to opportunities to self-govern and seek novel approaches is critically important — but you can go one step further by encouraging your teams to commingle in new ways, share responsibilities and generally create more complete and capable skill sets.
Why? Because succeeding in life means leveraging a wealth of challenging and diverse experiences. If we’re not exposed to new opportunities to think differently about the world or if we’re grinding away at problems in the same way again and again — like wearing down the grooves in a vinyl record — everything about our being stagnates.
We need to learn to roll with the punches. We need to get outside our comfort zones. The best leaders are empathetic, and that means learning what life is like outside our own heads.
Plus, you’ll make your company that much more agile and receptive to unforeseen changes. Diverse skill sets within your company mean you can survive staffing shakeups or other major setbacks without scrambling to complete additional training or bringing new faces aboard. Turnover is expensive — but by encouraging a well-rounded knowledge of your company and your place in the industry, you can insulate yourself against that kind of loss.
4. Make Leadership Central to What You Do
We get lost in the weeds sometimes, worrying over profit margins and “what the shareholders might think.” The truth is, business is about people, plain and simple.
By some accounts, organizations should be spending up to a third of their time investing in and growing tomorrow’s leaders. That probably sounds like a big commitment, but think about it. Don’t you want your business to survive after you’re gone? Don’t you want all the things you’ve worked so hard to build to pass into capable, credible hands?
And don’t you want everybody who looks in on your organization to envy the quality of leadership you’ve fostered there? Don’t you suppose that high-quality leadership, no matter what corner of the globe you might find it in, can encourage greatness elsewhere?
Yes — responsive, compassionate, ethical and competent leadership is infectious. Look no further than world leaders for proof. Those presidents and prime ministers, for example, who maintain a balance between strength and kindness — and between decisiveness and receptiveness to new ideas — enjoy the kind of popularity and enduring support that dreadful leaders can only dream of.
When you get right down to it, what we’re talking about isn’t merely grooming leaders for the cloistered life of a Corner-Office Executive — we’re grooming them to become quality citizens of the world. Even if you own the smallest of small businesses, that’s a worthy place to start.