Alignment Performance Results

The “Leadership Lifecycle”: Building on Individual Brains and Competence to Lead Teams to Achievement

Posted on 11/29/2012 in Leadership by Jack Speer

In the world of Scott Adams’ Dilbert, the most useless and incompetent employees—those who are least intelligent and who add little to the team—are sent to training.  There they can do the least amount of damage with all the other idiots of the organization—it takes them out of the world where real, meaningful work is being done.   Dilbert and his friends are often right.  Corporate training often doesn’t pass for real coaching and equipping people to lead.

But let’s look at two other models where coaching and leadership development are seen as methods of survival and success.  In sports, we understand that a multi-million dollar investment in a player must be supported by brilliant coaching.  In the military, we understand that to send a soldier into combat under a person who is untrained to lead is to send them into death.  But we don’t translate that kind of coaching and leadership development into business.

So why is leadership development and communication seen by many people in the c-suite as somewhere between a joke or a trip to nowhere?  Why is it that business does not share athletics’ commitment to coaching or the military’s commitment to leadership development?  That’s why we see so many useless failures of people who have high potential.  Corporations lose enormous amounts of money replacing people who could have been successful, but who were never coached to perform or trained to lead.

It’s mostly because so many people who do leadership development and team development lack the ability to achieve organizational goals.  It would be like taking someone who calls into a sports radio talk show and making them coach of the New York Giants.  CEOs are too smart and experienced to waste time and money on things that don’t add to the bottom line.

Yet proper coaching and leadership development is the future of business.  It is truly the best place to boost profits—delivering leadership skills that deliver exponentially better results.

Leadership development is the next wave.  In the area of developing people we are stuck in the past—as we were in the days before process improvement, reengineering, and quality management.  All those movements saved American business in the 80’s, and brilliant coaching and team leadership has the same potential today.  Our number one national threat at every level is the lack of leadership.

An article in the November 2012 issue of The Harvard Business Review, reports a study of 1,000 analysts worldwide who were asked why they recommend buying stock in a company.   The number two reason, after the potential of the industry, was the quality of the management team.  Analysts cut through to what will really make a company successful, and they see it’s their leadership.

The ”Leadership Cycle”

What is not often understood in organizations is that lack of leadership skills is not a pathology—it’s the beginning point to becoming a leader.  Most people learn to lead (or not) through the school of hard knocks and on-the-job practice, observing bosses (often not very good ones) as well as the time-consuming process of trial and error.  That’s an incredibly inefficient way to learn the most basic skill of business success.  The right kind of coaching and diagnostic tools can transform a person who is an outstanding professional into a leader who can transform an organization.

We must understand what we call the “leadership lifecycle.”  There is a predictable” leadership lifecycle” which is a passage from being the smartest, brightest, and top achieving person in the organization to someone who has who has the ability to lead the organization—to become a leader.   There are some born leaders, but key people that organizations bet the farm on—engineers, scientists, programmers, finance people—are often strong in their professional skills, but weak in leading teams and organizations.

People in organizations resist the idea of coaching, mentoring, and training in that they see it as an indication that they’re lacking in skills, broken in their abilities, “green behind the ears,” or ignorant and lacking.  Organizations reinforce this belief by initiating leadership development only when the organizational leadership is in trouble.

Organizations often think that brains and the ability to lead naturally follow, and we know that they do not.  Organizations marvel when smart people make their way to the top through their skills and abilities, and then find themselves surrounded by a group of people that they are incapable of leading.  They find themselves unable to relate to the people, to gain their respect, confidence and trust.   They are unable to effectively marshal people to achieve an outcome.

Many of us who are fortunate to have made the transition from high performer to effective leader have traveled that road alone.  We have seen people who tried to lead and have failed—all too often needlessly and at great expense to the organization.

The “Leadership Lifecycle”—From Star Performer to Effectively Leading Teams

The Leadership Lifecycle is the natural path that leaders travel to become leaders.  It assumes that we all acquire many leadership skills in life because of our natural experiences in learning cooperation to achieve goals.  There are the many other experiences we have as members of the educational system, clubs, churches or synagogues, fraternities, sororities, and all the other opportunities we have to learn to lead.

We learn from those who have led us in first jobs, although many times the quality of that learning is very poor.  Some people can be classified as “natural leaders,” but most of the time they learned quickly because of their aptitude, but they learned nonetheless—leaders are developed, not minted like coins.

Most of us do not begin knowing how to lead, hence we are toward the beginning of the “leadership lifecycle.”  In fact many of us throughout childhood and youth concentrated only peripherally on leadership skills.   We grew to adulthood concentrating on learning math, science, programming, arts and athletics to the point that we dedicated little time to people skills.  Even for those who find forming relationships and friendships more easily, the dynamics of pulling a group of people together to achieve a goal is not something that many of us have ever experienced.

The “leadership lifecycle” assumes that we come to a leadership position with undeveloped skills, although we have the potential to become effective leaders.   It assumes that we will follow the cycle to becoming effective leaders through learning the basics and practicing them until we are proficient.

As rising stars who have been catapulted into leadership roles because people saw potential in us, we experience a whole host of typical issues of people at the beginning of the leadership lifecycle.  We may be “brilliant jerks,” technically strong but insensitive to others around us—this is curable.  In the educational system we were required to regurgitate answers, and perhaps as new leaders we are now required to fact find and find answers—this we can be taught.  At the beginning of the leadership lifecycle we don’t know how to run a meeting or to get input—this can be taught.

The idea that we can teach ourselves the complex set of skills that are part of the leadership lifecycle in time to be effective does not make any more sense than to bring a group of professional team members onto a field or court and let them self-organize.

An well-crafted process of taking promising people though the leadership lifecycle quickly and efficiently is the most profitable initiative that companies can utilize to develop high performing teams that produce greater revenue and market share.  It’s the most promising initiative since managing quality, process analysis, and reengineering.  It is the opportunity initiative of the 21st Century.

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