April 19, 2014

Caesar was right, but where do we find competent leaders?

Share via email

The soldier has a right to competent command. — Julius Caesar

When applied to the workplace, this quote speaks directly to the need for leaders who are actually capable of leadership, of course. Yet, many organizations employ methods of promoting individuals into leadership roles do little to take into account the person’s leadership skills. Instead, technical expertise tends to be what is promoted, with the belief that leadership skills can then be acquired.

Consequently, there are armies of internal and external coaches and consultants working to infuse leadership characteristics into those who, suddenly, find themselves in roles where they must make decisions that will affect people’s careers. The inefficiency of the process is overwhelming: By promoting those who might not have natural leadership abilities, we then have to hire others to teach it to them. While different leadership development approaches, and coaches, might be more or less effective than another, this process seems to something we can characterize using Drucker’s well-known statement:

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

Wouldn’t we all be much better off if we identified those who demonstrate leadership skills and promoted them upwards in the organization, rather than hoping we could teach leadership to those who might not have much ability to learn it? While aspects of leadership can be taught and learned, those with a particular talent for the role will do better than those who must learn from scratch, just like with anything else. To make an analogy, anyone can learn to throw a football, but that won’t make him Peyton Manning.

Finding those with leadership ability might require rethinking what we look for. Often, “leaders” are those who demonstrate a willingness to do whatever is asked of them, and implement the decisions of senior management. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem as much like leading as it does like following. As I wrote in a previous post:

Standing at the front of the line does not make one a leader. Leadership must be, to some degree, the art of dissent. Only by challenging the conventional and approved, and convincing others to do the same, can one truly be deemed a leader. To merely be the first to get in line and have others walk behind you, in a direction determined by someone else, is not the act of leading. It is, rather, an indication that one has achieved nothing more than being the first to follow.

Identifying those who are willing to challenge the conventional and approved might require embracing people who are often on the periphery of most organizations. There are often those who are rather vocal in their disapproval of the status quo, and tend to be shut out of decision making. Those who are frustrated, however, are seeing problems and wanting to fix them – even if they don’t know how.

Additionally, there are those who tend to go the extra mile to assure the quality of their work, or to assist others, or to maintain good morale in their work group. Unfortunately, since they might not have the superior technical skills that tend to get promoted, these “Positive Deviants” tend to get passed over when opportunities for upward movement arise. In another post from a few weeks back, I discuss the likelihood that successful organizational transformations may very well rely on identifying these positive deviants) and utilizing their ability to see beyond the status quo.

Wherever we begin to find those with leadership potential, it is clear that the current approach to promoting the technically skilled in hopes of that providing them with training will generate strong leaders, is wasteful. There are already strong leaders within your organization, they just might not be who you think they are.

Did you like this post?

Sign up to receive email updates directly to your inbox:

Delivered by FeedBurner