Saving Leaders From Themselves

In leadership development, strategy can provide order and system to what needs to be done in a shared approach to success. While others will have strengths that we don’t, they will also have some weaknesses. Anticipating and adjusting in light of these can help grow teams and their leadership skills. This needs us not to assert ourselves with an ‘I-told-you-so’ or an ‘I-know-better’ attitude, but to bring the best out of others without having to take the credit. Here’s some helpful keys to doing this with a more stimulating focus on strengthening people, rather than on the more intense approach of overcoming problems.  

1. Empower some delegation for development.

Leaders won’t grow if doing by themselves what they can empower others to do instead. The temptation to have a job done either well or quickly can squeeze out other tasks which then don’t get done at all.

The mobilisation of volunteers can seem especially difficult in a time-starved world, but people are wired to want to make a difference and to be a key part of a bigger cause. This, of course, needs us to role-model empowerment by equipping and releasing leaders, but we sometimes need to show those leaders just how to break complex tasks into simpler components which then attract volunteers and make their involvement seem more doable if already busy.

Providing small roles plus small risks will more easily create small wins, but each is more likely achievable than the big wins that need large roles and large risks which many will simply not take on at first.

Besides, a series of small wins grows a developing leader’s momentum and confidence. An established leader who is able to grow new leaders will feel tremendously encouraged and inspired as they stretch their own capacity.

2. Encourage some responsiveness for responsibility

Since few people are outward processors and some actually lack self-assurance, it is all too easy for our developing leaders to keep their thoughts and ideals to themselves. While democracy is unworkable in its extreme, the sharing of views is essential for bolstering the capacity and confidence to act responsibly. Those who second-guess themselves will lead uncertainly.

Receiving necessary challenges to assumptions and being able to shape a shared culture is only likely as learner leaders balance the need for submission and sparring. Of course, this means established leaders need to create safety to promote vulnerability and candour without compromising respect. They also need to refrain from taking themselves too seriously in achieving this.

People inevitably make mistakes from which they will learn if reflecting with the aid of wisdom and experience. They should be encouraged to seek this out as proactive learners and as responsible leaders of others.

This enables them to fail well and to create more authentic followers who will then become better leaders themselves.

3. Engender some confidence for culture

Those shared values are important, but cannot be left only to established leaders to prioritise. Imbibing and promoting culture more broadly is critical to taking leadership development beyond one generation of growth.

It is as established leaders set clear parameters (and then allow safe debate and exploration within them) that they can then safely release people to conduct their roles with freedom.

Feedback and accountability are still important but when we show confidence in those we develop to get the job done they typically rise up to champion our own values as theirs.

Also, if our own leadership is frantic or reactionary, those we develop will follow suit and, in turn, react more impulsively and with less consideration. This can compromise the unity, security, and clarity of their teams as a result.

4. Ensure some feedback for follower-ship

Any leaders you lead or develop will expect feedback, whether you actually articulate it or not. Many leaders make the mistake of believing that speaking candidly will do damage. Undoubtedly, sensitivity and timing are important, but what needs to be said may need to be said by you. Otherwise, even more damage may be done than that of possibly hurting some feelings.

On less important things, that may not require your input. After all, we should not overwhelm people or even find the time to confront everything that could be addressed, anyway. Some things will be ‘winked’ at and left to self-discovery or redress by others.

What undermines teams or performance, though, needs addressing with frankness and sensitivity, but those things which could hold a developing leader back will also need to be pointed out at the right time.

To refrain from doing so perpetrates an injustice that breeds shallowness and distrust in teams. It might even be seen as an uncaring form of manipulation that uses team members only to serve our own agenda. By contrast, well-delivered feedback that is balanced by affirmation and encouragement will, if well received, cultivate foundational trust that breeds lasting respect.

That condition of being well received is responsible for the seeds of doubt in too many leaders, but this needs to be balanced with appropriate risk-taking in any venture that develops leaders as an integral practice. This is especially significant to organisations with a high dependence on volunteers.

Development, responsibility, culture and followership; all are traits highly valued by leaders. To develop them, however, needs more than mere direction through verbal instruction or role descriptions. It needs recognition of what is not yet present, but needs purposeful development as part and parcel of our role.

Fostering values with intentionality is crucial to the success of any leadership development process and therefore to the ongoing health of any organisation.


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