A leader once said to me “Alan, I’m a leader in my company, but I don’t know what’s expected of me.”
A closer look at that organization revealed a few things. It had succession gaps in key leadership positions. It had little support for new leaders and no model of leadership. It had inconsistent training and development activities that weren’t tied to the mission, vision, or strategy of the business. It turns out that leader was a member of an organization that had not shaped its leadership culture.
A conversation with the executive leaders of that organization exposed that while they had strong individual beliefs about leadership, they were very different beliefs. Simply put, they were out of alignment.
Leadership is a moving target. Try nailing it down and you may be looking for the nail remover in no time. I heard someone say once that “leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.”
But does it have to be? Can you take the mystery of out it? Try this.
Leave the dictionary on the shelf. Instead, define leadership in a way that makes sense for your organization. Start by asking these questions: “What’s our mission? What’s our vision? What do our stakeholders expect of our leaders as we work to achieve these things? And what leadership skills are necessary for getting us there?”
But don’t do this alone. Short of locking your leaders in a room and throwing away the key, you should impress upon them that if it was not important before this is important now. Turn the task of defining and communicating leadership expectations into a group project. Make it a strategic imperative to which the senior-most members of your organization are held accountable.
Use leadership champions
Once you’ve defined leadership, tell people about it. Get the word out, and one of the ways in which you can do this is through leadership champions. These are the formal and informal influence leaders in your organization. Inform and educate them first, and then use them to spread the good word.
At one company with a leadership culture they have a Leadership Faculty of leaders teaching leaders. These internal leadership champions dedicate their time in a formal classroom setting to explaining core expectations for leadership. Outside the classroom they serve as role models, daily walking the talk.
That same company also looks for great internal leaders to spotlight in a public setting. They say “here’s a leader doing something great that we should all try,” and then they listen as that leader tells their story.
These leadership champions will attract more champions, those already in the business, and those who wish to be let in.
Don’t stop there. Create visible reminders of your definition of leadership. Create images and hang them on the wall. Make stickers to place on the back of badges. Give leaders hand-held reference guides reminding them of their expectations. Or come up with something more creative that links to your organization’s way of doing things. Eventually these visible elements of your leadership culture will translate into invisible elements, and leadership will become part of the everyday fabric of the organization. It’ll just be there.
Teach leaders to self-develop
Finally, help leaders hit the target. Turn them around so they’re facing in the right direction. Move them closer until the target comes into focus. Then, give them the bow and arrow and teach them how to aim.
Put another way, encourage your leaders to self-assess by asking themselves “if this is what’s now expected of me, how am I doing?” Cheer them on as they seek feedback from others until they fully understand and accept their current state. Then give them ideas for how they can improve and hit the target. And broker the opportunities that will enable their development, like projects, mentors, and formal study.
But don’t just teach them leadership skills. Teach them how to learn leadership skills.
For leadership to take hold, leaders must understand what’s required for development to happen. An April 2011 article published by CLO magazine, called Focusing on Individual Leadership Development for Organizational Growth, says this:
The missing link of the learning organization is the learning individual. Unless every individual in an organization has an understanding of the nature of the learning process and how to accelerate their own learning, the learning organization remains a theoretical construct instead of a practical reality….It’s not just a theoretical notion that employees should learn. Leadership development is about actually teaching people how to learn and how to accelerate the process of learning.
Organizations don’t develop leaders; instead leaders develop leaders. Organizations, on the other hand, provide the direction, the tools, and the resources that empower their leaders to take development into their own hands.
In summary, an organization with a leadership culture is full of leaders who can answer the basic question “what kind of leadership is expected from me, and how do I do it?” This is because that organization defined leadership, got the word out through leadership champions, and taught its leaders how to self-develop.
Can your leaders answer this question?