Who will be brave enough to truly develop leaders?

by Didier Marlier on Saturday April 2nd, 2016

A few months ago, I had dinner with a top HR officer who had followed one of our programs and wanted to provide me with a rich “exploratory feedback” (something highly value-creating as it is half way between feedback and questioning. It feels less threatening and easier to receive and more creative and geared towards co-creation as the person giving feedback, mainly does it through sharing their surprise and asking questions).

He was kind enough to say that our development program was the best he had attended in his (long) career and had a question about it: “What is your intention when you design and deliver such a program? Are you truly developing leaders or do you prepare managers?”

I asked him in return to define what he meant by “a leader”. His reply was:

  • Someone who takes clear positions (taking a stand)
  • Someone who has the courage to experiment and does things differently
  • Someone who will make a difference, leave a legacy
  • Someone independent minded, entrepreneurial and creative
  • Someone who has a vision and is able to engage others in it

And what is a manager then?

  • Someone who motivates others and ensures that they deliver
  • Someone who arbitrates conflicts and allocates resources
  • Someone who loves to implement things
  • Someone who develops, encourages, prepares others for success

I could see two different and equally needed images of executives emerging. I asked him in return: “Do you think your Executive Board would be delighted and ready to accept that we develop self-starting, self-motivated, independent minded, somewhat rebellious entrepreneurs? Would you want that?” He laughed and saw the point. And that precisely seemed to be the point to me: We all want our children to grow and fear the age of their adolescence… We all expect our people to succeed and how do we deal and support them in failing? We all hope our organizations to become more innovative and risk taking and we let “procedure freaks” stifle creativity and a bit of healthy craziness. We all claim to want their honest and brutal feedback but our upper lip stiffens when they, courageously fire the first shot. We’d like them to be independent minded but not too much… Even our Business Education system develops Administrators and not Leaders… What is the title delivered by Business Schools’ flagship programs? A Master in Business… Administration! Is there any school that dares offering a Master in Business Leadership (read here the paper I once wrote in defense of MBL vs MBA)? Is there any school that is courageous enough to apply this thinking and this culture to itself? I am afraid I do not know any, as if this were the case… my partners and I would be heavily involved with them.

My challenge does not suggest that we should encourage selfish entrepreneurship, “my way or the highway” thinking, immature or irresponsible rebellious behaviours, leave aside internal competition. From far not. It is simply an invitation to all of us to review our coherence: Do we truly want to develop leaders and entrepreneurs or do we fear to let go of control?

I apologize to the early readers of this blog but I would love to show again a short and thought provoking intervention of a “a la mode” management thinker of the moment, Daniel Pink. He explains what are the conditions that should be fulfilled for true empowerment. Maybe the same apply if we wish to develop, nurture and create the right conditions for our leaders to blossom:

  • Autonomy: True entrepreneurial leaders need clear rules of the game. What is my playing field and do I have full freedom of creativity, failure and success within its boundaries? Can I do things differently?
  • Mastery: It is our responsibility to “set them up for success”. Promoting them too quickly, challenging them with stressing rather than stretching targets, watching them fail when they were not fully prepared, is our responsibility.
  • Purpose: Why we want them to do something is far more important than prescribing them what or how they should do it. My apologies for this clip also shown a few years ago, whose profound wisdom continues to deeply impress me. Retired US Marines Lt General Paul Van Riper explains how he thinks leaders should set target to their teams.

Enjoy your leadership journey!

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