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How Leaders Are Really Developed

And why typical leadership development efforts don't work

(Real-World Leadership Development, Part 1)

Li #218 How Leaders Are Really Developed
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WHY IS IT that so few organizations are producing new and better leaders? I emphasize new and better leaders, because that is the true test of any leadership development program.

Most organizations of any size today offer training under the heading of “Leadership Development.” Executives have often participated in more workshops, presentations, and classes than they can name, with both internal trainers and visiting speakers. One thing that should make you wonder is that, at least in my experience, these tend to be led by people with only academic credentials and who have never actually led anything to speak of.

I do commend their efforts. Participants have usually walked away from training classes stimulated and with helpful insights, tips, and tools. However, while participants may be benefitting personally from these efforts, are they really producing new and better leaders?

Your organization might be an exception, but in my observation and experience the quality and number of available leaders remains about the same.

In this miniseries of at least four articles, I’m going to lay out my philosophy of leadership development, beginning with four LD Propositions with four more next week.

Leadership Development Proposition 1:

Leaders are not developed by a class or training.

Leaders are developed through a PROCESS.

The average organization emphasizes curriculum, which is why their efforts look more like a form of continuing education. In reality, curriculum is secondary. The process is primary. Where the process is understood and worked faithfully over time, the development of people as better leaders is guaranteed.

This is not mere theory. I have been in the people development business for over 35 years and have led the leadership development process for both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Countless people have gone on to become significant and effective leaders for their organizations or volunteer pursuits.

Leadership Development Proposition 2:

The principles of leadership development (the process) are universal and timeless.

Any supposed methods of leadership development that can only be applied with the wealth and resources of this country in order to work are superficial. The genuine process for leadership development applies not only in the rich U.S.A., but in poorer countries without our ways and means. For example, I have personally taught and applied them with community leaders in the backwoods of Haiti, where they have almost no electricity or running water. Leaders I have trained have applied the process in all parts of the world in wildly different settings. The principles are the same everywhere. The difference is adapting the principles to available resources.

If this process for leadership development works in nations and cultures as widely differing as the U.S.A. and Haiti, then they will apply to widely differing organizations within the United States. Your company does not have to have the resources or finances of a giant corporation. The process is the same, only requiring adjustment to your organization’s resources and opportunities.

Leadership Development Proposition 3:

You don’t “pick” leaders.

You IDENTIFY them.

This is the typical rookie mistake of would-be leadership trainers: They believe they can pick emerging leaders out of the crowd, the available masses. Can they get some of them right? Sure. But their actual percentage of hits isn’t much higher in the long run than if they had no training method at all.


error is believing you can pick leaders out of the crowd in the first place. If you try, you’ll pick them by the same old, tired criteria. You’ll pick those who are assertive, verbally smooth, look impressive, and sound smart: What I call the “Conventional Model” of a leader. What you won’t see is their hidden limitations. You won’t see character defects, besetting faults, weaknesses, or Achilles heels by which they shoot themselves in the foot when trying to lead others. The notion you can spot “leadership potential” is a myth.

You also won’t pick the quieter, introverted, or socially shy ones ─ those less likely to push themselves forward in the crowd, but who might possess enormous leadership capability. You won’t pick them because their qualities and potential aren’t apparent when they are in the midst of the crowd.

This is no small matter. Max De Pree wrote in his great little book, Leadership Is an Art,

“Choosing leaders is the most vital and important matter corporations and institutions face.”

Most organizational failures are actually leadership failures, and that the roots of many of these can be traced back to the beginning, to the selection process: Wrong people in leadership. But what’s the remedy?

Leadership Development Proposition 4:

Since leaders are “identified,”

you must create an arena for them to reveal themselves.

If, however, you create and administer a process for leadership development, you’ll see some of these quieter individuals bloom before your eyes into leaders you could not have anticipated. Without a process you’ll never see or notice them, much less develop them.

Finally, if you do have a process for leadership development, you will identify your emerging leaders according to set criteria. They will earn their leadership positions through actual performance. And when you are selecting leaders based on a proven track record, your “batting average” goes way up.

While I’ll have more to say about this next week, I can tell you, based on decades of developing leaders, that there is one, and only one way to know if someone can be a successful leader: You see them do it!

Your bottom line

This is how an organization can progress way beyond the pack in producing the people that can lead them to excellence. After all, no organization has executives who are that much smarter than their competitors’. The difference is in their leaders’ behaviors and leadership ability. That’s the real distinguishing factor that separates good organizations from great ones.

Robert M. Fulmer and Jered L. Bleak conducted a study of companies with the best records of leadership development. They reported their findings in The Leadership Advantage, in which they assert:

“Companies that develop great leaders have a competitive advantage over those that do not. A company that can see into the future and develop leaders to meet its strategic needs will have a seemingly insurmountable advantage over its competitors that cannot.”

That tells you how strategically important this subject is. This is true regardless of what kind of organization you serve: large or small, non-profit or for-profit, public or private. Even if you manage a small company or department, it is to your advantage to understand the principles of leadership development, to increase your chances of elevating the right people to leadership.

In my next article, I’ll share the next four leadership development propositions, then we’ll move on to how to build the structure and apply the process that results in new and better leaders. Li


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