The ultimate leadership development lesson

Leadership and development are the cornucopia of business publications’ clichés. Running dry for the next issue? Why not talk about yet another leadership guru, or development survey or “best practice”? This is the business equivalent of the “6-pond diet before this summer” paper in some press.

Hm. Couldn’t resist. Here’s mine.

So let us be practical: just like any good diet, leadership and talent development are usually plain common sense. Which thanks to Mark Twain we know is not that common, really.

In the Acid Test series, I would like to offer one that is fun to bring in discussions with managers: “have you groomed your successor yet?” That might bring an awkward silence. See for yourself!

Why is that? Of course, the first thing that springs to their minds is “am I closer to the door than to a promotion?” which is often exactly the problem (it being the first thought). But it is not the core of the issue.

A good business leader is a lazy person. A manager is someone who has a team and a budget to achieve a goal. The more the team is proactive, self-confident, clear and well aligned about the right things to do, the closer the goal. That takes a good deal of autonomy. The best team is actually the one doing the right thing without having to check with the boss every minute whether they are heading in the right direction. The boss is therefore rather free of that task.

So what does that mean? It is the team that can do without controlling management for a while because everyone is a fraction of the boss, somehow, thanks to the latter sharing guidance and making sure everyone is clear about it, and supportive of the goal.

The only additional thing they need to become the boss is assertiveness which comes from understanding the priorities and the big picture. What is well understood being easy to explain, the ability to enlist people – that’s making them understand what they can gain from working with you (a cause, a clear goal, autonomy, development… name it) – becomes an easier task. And that is what bosses need to work on with their teams.

A number of team leaders I have met suffer from the “I am The Man” syndrome – gender equity tip: works with ladies, too. It is an affliction which, consciously or not, leads managers to think that :

      • They are, for some reason, just the person – and the only one – for the job
      • Some prerogatives are truly theirs and not to be shared or let others into (often: “I decide for the strategy and the priorities. And I won’t always share my conclusions beyond what I think you need to know”. Note how that differs from “what you need to know”).
      • Everyone in the team is certainly nice, but they are not quite there yet (and they’ll hardly be)
      • They were not really conscious they had to do it (happens more often than you think!)

In other words: knowledge being power, let’s retain some, sometimes even in good faith or without paying attention. In the process, let’s undermine the team’s ability to think and act. But also, let’s prevent the rise of someone who could eventually step up and be a successor. Not only will that endanger the talent pipe line of the company, but that will contribute to keeping of the manager in his or her current position rather than freeing him, or her, for the next move upwards with the reputation of being a talent developer. Or alternatively put, a leader. Now who wouldn’t want this and why will always be a source of wonder…

But I am talking, and talking… Let’s talk about you. Have you groomed your successor yet?

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