There is clearly no shortage of literature, training programs, degrees, and other efforts specializing in leadership development. There is also no shortage of professionals offering to develop and coach leaders, including yours truly. However, professionals typically go through these development experiences after they are appointed to leadership roles. Leaders are, hence, chosen but to what extent does each leader get to make the conscious decision to become a leader and keep climbing the ranks?
Since students wouldn’t go into undergraduate programs to specialize in leadership, a systemic approach to treat leadership as a career choice similar to major professions doesn’t really exist. Rather, a leadership role is generally perceived as an opportunity for advancement and who in their right mind would say NO to that? In many cases, this opportunity is offered due to the success of the selected leader in a technical role or maybe a smaller or very different leadership role. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll start saying no to promotions. But approaching the decision to take a leadership role like a typical career choice can be very helpful for effectively selecting and even developing leaders. This boils down to two simple questions:
- What’s the desired capability profile of the future leader?
- What makes the leadership role attractive for the ideal candidate?
As to the first question, each leadership role may require a unique profile. But there are certain capabilities that are simply required for success regardless of the size of the organization, team, or program. These basically enable a leader to define the destination, design the path, and bring people along for the journey:
- Imagination of how the wider economy and relevant industries and communities could evolve or transform given how game changers would play out
- Insight into the potential of individuals and teams and what it takes to realize it
- Vision of how the organization or business would fit into the likely future scenario(s)
- Influence to build cohesiveness and establish team-wide ownership of the vision
- Inspiration of a growth culture that naturally attracts and cultivates leadership talent, thereby multiplying and extending the positive outcomes
As for the second question, it is probably more critical that leaders are fulfilled than it is for them to exactly fit into the role profiles. Developing some of the desired capabilities is less challenging than becoming effective while being unfulfilled and constantly struggling with personnel, financial, and competitive pressures. In addition to being results-oriented, highly successful leaders share personal characteristics that bring personal joy to their experiences:
- Excitement about what the near, let alone the distant, future holds for their organization and people
- A genuine desire to see people reach new, previously unimaginable heights, watch them grow, and celebrate together
- Trust that their people have their minds and hearts in the right place and (with the right support) can and will do what it takes to achieve seemingly very ambitious goals
- Appetite for failure because failures offer the opportunity for a leader to practice being creative and compassionate, and address the issues head on
Leaders who possess these attributes will typically find fulfillment in their leadership roles and create positive and fulfilling environments for their teams and organizations. Approaching leadership as a means to an end, or the surest way to get to the top of organizations and simply make more money is the most ineffective way to lead. Raising the two simple career choice questions about what it takes to lead and what’s in it for the leader is not just critical for making mutually satisfactory decisions about selecting leaders. It also offers a framework for developing leadership talent across a wide range of experience and expertise.