Think for a moment of great leaders who have impacted your life. Picture their faces. What did they do that showed great leadership? Why do you remember them so well?
The faces that come to my mind each highlight a particular trait of leadership: Kevin’s planning and calm under fire, Jonathan’s relentless training, John’s measured aggression, Paul’s care and dedication, Nate’s compassion and creativity, and so on.
These faces and memories shape our ideas of leadership, and they can both help and hinder our efforts to develop leaders.
Over the last several months, three friends have approached me (separately) about significant leader development initiatives that they have begun. One is in industrial manufacturing. The other two are in a church context. Each is looking to guide groups of talented individuals who are relatively new to this leadership thing…and grow them into exceptional leaders.
Each of my friends is an exceptional leader in their own right. They can all see both the glorious endstate of the initiative, as well as the sweaty toil needed to get there. They are also wise enough to be humble about the task at hand and are reaching for resources to help define, shape, and refine their approach.
How would YOU approach such a task, from scratch?
Personally, I think it can be overwhelming. Google “Leadership Development.” I got about 39 million hits, which reflects the countless number of legitimate things to think about in developing leaders. You know what else is overwhelming? Those faces in our heads we thought about earlier. While they help us understand good leadership, they also represent the countless attributes that we could focus on – while not necessarily providing the next step. They also set us up for disappointment.
This is because we often forget the long journeys that those leaders took to get where they were when we knew them. We forget the mistakes they made. We forget it didn’t happen overnight. So when we look at our newer leaders, we want to jam all that experience and maturity right into them. And if our new leaders aren’t well on their way to the ideal within a matter of weeks, we get frustrated – with them or with ourselves.
Building good leaders takes time.
It also takes pressure. I don’t mean just the pressure of challenging experiences – although that is also necessary. I mean deliberate but gentle pressure from you, their mentor in this process. This pressure is your questions, observations, and guidance. It’s your stories. It’s your analysis of the leader – “What is holding him back right now?” or “What is the biggest challenge she is facing?” It’s your permission to make mistakes. It’s your insistence that they take time to reflect. All of these combine as a gentle force steadily pushing their development forward.
Most of all, they need YOUR time. They need regular, face-to-face time with you. This is not time to go over a task list with them or to necessarily solve an employee problem. This is time where you and that individual leader are focused on his development. It becomes a place to reflect, ask questions, and process growth. It’s also a ringside seat for you to see how they are really doing. In fact, these deliberate meetings can help you clearly see what your developing leaders need to focus on next.
My friend Brandon, who is exceptionally disciplined in this practice, has a general rule of thumb for one-on-one, face-to-face time. He spends a third of the time connecting on a personal level, a third of the time talking business topics, and a third of the time focused on the leader’s overall growth and career perspective. Again, this is no rigid formula, but a general guideline which he deviates from as the situation dictates. Your approach will be unique. What’s important is the focus on development, not the daily task accomplishment.
So, where should my friends start? First, remembering how long the process will be. Second, remembering how important she (or he) will be in the process, as she invests time to apply constructive pressure.
The result is worth it.