I once read a book on leadership development. At the time I wasn’t in a formal leadership role, but even so its message resonated with me. The core message of the book, Summoned to Lead, by Leonard Sweet, was that leadership can summon you at any time, and if a person can rise to the occasion, that makes them a leader.
The book tells the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of the greatest leaders ever, who led a team of explorers on a boat through the gravest conditions to the South Pole and back, without losing a single person. If someone is a true leader, people will follow them with or without a title, and their leadership will value those they lead, and be reflected by how they lead. Ultimately, that’s how to know they’re a leader—people are following them. Even so, if you want to grow strong leaders, here are 6 considerations:
- Provide Leadership Opportunities
Like the book’s premise, I became a leader because of opportunities that came my way. From 2007 to 2011, I worked with dozens of former car dealers. All of them were sales leaders and consultants at heart, and if you’ve ever worked with these personalities, they are a rather lovable, maverick bunch to lasso in. I came to the company outside of their industry, and so it took me a while to gain credibility to speak to anything in their world. But, over time they were gracious, and as I mixed my education tools with their automotive industry expertise, we began to create magic together. That magic included some great projects and valuable lessons in leadership.
I got many opportunities to lead there, even though I did not have an official leadership title. Because of these amazing colleagues, I felt continually encouraged to grow in leadership. They were strong and able leaders calling out what they saw in me, and this empowered me to walk in more leadership attributes. Through observing how they led, I learned a lot from them about leading. Many emerging leaders learn the same way. Make sure to give them opportunities, this is how they will often learn.
2. Value the Benefits of Leading from Personal Influence
I learned mostly from those leaders that you can be a leader long before you get a title. Leadership begins with taking responsibility for the outcome of a thing(s). Could it be optimal to test potential leadership in this way? I think so. This allows a person to demonstrate their ability to lead without a formal title. If they can, then they’re a leader. The question then becomes: Are they a good leader? It’s one thing to have the positional authority to lead, and it’s an entirely different thing to influence people who have no reason to follow the leader. When they choose to follow their leadership because they trust the leader, that makes that person a leader. Help them practice influence versus having a position, it will matter in the end.
3. Validate Potential with Positional Influence
I got a lot of practice leading from personal influence; it was the only kind of real leadership I had for almost 9 years. Fast forward 5 years after I left this automotive team, and I landed in a role where I inherited a team of 7 people. It was about the same size company as before, but now I had a team reporting directly to me. The team wasn’t necessarily happy about my arrival.
The prior practice of operating as a leader, depending only on personal and professional influence, was so impactful that it made stepping into this new official role much easier. It also made walking through land mines less risky as well. I went in strong, but I also worked to gain their trust. When a person learns to lead from influence, they must use a very different skillset. This skillset motivates the use of soft skills over any other approach. Soft skills soften hearts more than positional authority will any day of the week.
4. Adequately Support New Leaders
However, I still had many questions about leading a team and was aware of my need for further leadership development. But leading from influence didn’t mean I had all the skills I needed to lead well. One of the things that helped me settle more confidently into this new role of leading was being part of a formal in-house company leadership training program in the first 6 months of the role. I can’t tell you how critical this was to my success there. Every new leader or manager should be able to receive this kind of training about how to lead within your company. Make sure your company is providing one, and if not, get after it as soon as possible. It’s invaluable. This kind of leadership equipping training fosters these kind of behaviors:
- Cross functional collaboration because of the connections you make with other internal leaders
- Championed support from executive sponsors at the levels above
- Appropriate communication of the who, what, when, where, how, and why within the company which instills basic knowledge and understanding of what a leader needs to function day to day
- Social connections which create relational stickiness contributing to longevity in the company
- Empowered problem solving because of having received foundational knowledge of resources
- Imprinting of company culture through group immersion and group experiences
Never underestimate the power of equipping newer leaders with what they need. It can make a huge difference, and save much stress, anxiety, and frustration, allowing that energy to be better spent else where.
5. Invest In Next Level Leadership Development
As I grew within this team, I inherited another team of 10, where I had more and more strategic and operational responsibility. This team wasn’t really very happy about me being there either. So again, I went in strong, but I tried to consistently use soft skills to soften the ground I was going to build the team’s future on. A bigger team for me equaled bigger decisions; and with that, bigger challenges. Some challenges I knew how to handle, and some I learned through mistakes, bumps, failures, and successes. I learned to allow the team to weigh in on a lot of things, and this helped me acquire their trust as well.
Thankfully, early in that role, our company invested in a leadership development program over an 18-month period with about 16 other leaders in the company, and I got to be a part of it. This program inspired and elevated my confidence and allowed me to overcome imposter syndrome as well as other tricky things that come with increased leadership. In the program, we were given the gift of learning together, forming our own network, as well being given the gift of a leadership development coach each. This allowed all of us to blossom as leaders during a very turbulent organizational change season across the company. It also gave us support we needed to manage through the change. In hindsight, it is clear this program was vital to our success. Make sure you’re investing in the outcomes you want from your leaders. It will pay dividends.
6. Understand Leadership Impacts Profitability
Why is this worth writing about? Well, there is no one path to becoming a great leader. There are formal and informal pathways. Every leader comes with a different skillset. Ideally, you want to create an environment in your company where any leader can thrive. In doing so, your organization will benefit, and that support will contribute to a healthy organization. Healthy organizations affect how your business functions, which in turn impacts profitability. If you want to ensure you have the leaders you need, it requires being intentional and it requires investing the time, resources, and effort to make it happen. Put an inept leader in place, and you will begin to see the cost of it, which will eventually impact your bottom line through turnover, poor productivity, lost focus and more.
To cultivate good leaders, you must invest. Employees know they are valued by how a company invests in them. Ensure new leaders, or any leaders have what they need to be successful. Investing in people pays interest in many ways. Like any investment, you get what you put into it, if you invest wisely. It takes being engaged with your leaders to ensure they have the support they need to be successful.
Are you investing in your leaders, equipping them to handle all that their role demands? Do you have leaders who struggle to lead powerfully in every area of their role? What would help them lead more effectively?
You have summoned them to lead, so ensure they have what is needed to be able to succeed! In the end, you will succeed as well.