Charles-Guillaume Etienne is said to have penned the phrase, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Most of us have heard something in this vein and many of us agree with these words whole-heartedly. The trouble is, whether at work or in our personal lives, we just can’t quite pull it off. There are simply not enough hours in the day to complete every task alone. We need help and good help can be hard to find.
Science is beginning to figure out what makes for good help in the form of successful leaders. Wake Forest professor and retired U.S. Army colonel Sean Hannah’s 2013 study of military leaders concluded that the brains of successful leaders are more complex than average. He found his best leaders had brains that functioned differently, and their thinking was more adaptable and nimble. Some reading his findings concluded that leaders were thus born, not made. Hannah hoped his findings could be used to help train more effective leaders.
Because brain development and growth occur throughout one’s lifetime, it is safe to say that it is possible to build good leaders in an organization. Just as teachers help students become more effective learners, organizations can help individuals become more effective leaders. However building leadership does require the proper opportunity, environment, and support.
How can you make opportunity knock? It’s not enough to simply give potential leaders opportunities to lead. Just as a teenager doesn’t begin by driving a jet, so too developing leaders need scaffolded opportunities. Leadership projects should begin with small teams, limited time frames, and clear objectives and responsibilities. Successful completion then leads to larger projects, larger budgets, and more autonomy. Emerging leaders need a chance to drive before they can fly.
How can you build an environment of creative leadership? Educator George Couros tells us, “One of the best ways to derive fulfillment as an employee is to work on projects you initiate.” Environments that allow employees to be creative and follow passions are open to new ideas and accepting of out-of-the-box thinking. They encourage and reward colleagues who consider new approaches and offer unique and exciting plans. More importantly, they make taking such risks a safe and expected behavior. Organizations that build leaders encourage employees to share their wildest ideas and their most practical. The only failure is the person who contributes nothing at all.
How much support is needed to help a leader fly? Mentorship is essential in creating leadership. Mentors provide guidance and clear expectations. They are a sounding board for ideas and a shoulder to lean on when necessary. Essential to the mentoring process is the debriefing of projects. Developing leaders need the time and encouragement to unpack a completed project, to reflect on what went well and what did not, and to consider new directions and solutions to problems. This ongoing relationship between mentor and emerging leader builds trust on both sides. The mentor fully understands the individual’s strengths and abilities, the emerging leader gains confidence and skills.
Companies and organizations have several choices when it comes to leadership. Many hire the “born leaders” they want, assuming they can always find and afford them. Others simply expect existing leaders to do everything themselves, limiting the growth of the leader and the organization. Perhaps the best choice would be for organizations to build their own leaders from within, creating the opportunity, environment, and support necessary to foster excellence, creativity, and innovation in young leaders.
“Whatever good things we build end up building us.” Jim Rohn
Charles Guillaume-Etienne: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles-Guillaume_%C3%89tienne
Bruis et Palaprat: https://archive.org/stream/bruisetpalaprat00etiegoog#page/n14/mode/2up
George Couros: http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/7092
Jim Rohn: https://www.jimrohn.com/