Growing leaders at every level

“To lead” is a verb, not a noun. All too often the action of leadership gets assigned to those that have a certain level of title or stature within an organization—but why? Does leading begin when you have a certain rank in a company hierarchy? Is leading associated with a specific bracket on a salary scale?  The confusion begins when we conflate who carries the greatest accountability in a company (e.g. a CEO, a Director of Development, etc.) and what it means to lead.

In my work, both as a consultant to leaders, and as a director in a non-profit, I always seek to cultivate and grow the leadership abilities of those I supervise and those I partner with. I don’t do this to delegate more of my responsibilities; instead, I see the investment in growing each individual into someone who could fully lead in their given roles.

So how can you move an organization from the notion that leading is only done by the highest executive-level decision makers and instead grow leaders at every level? I share these recommendations to begin to cultivate leadership for every member of your organization:

  • Check yourself first. In order to build leadership capacity in others (e.g. confidence in decision-making, accountable conversations, creative autonomies), you must first recognize that empowering others means that you won’t have ultimate control over everything. Instead of seeing the success and failure of specific tasks as a direct reflection on your skills, you have to begin to see your employees’ or team’s growth and challenges as an opportunity to grow a leader. For example, if you position someone to create a system to conduct an annual audit of marketing resources, there is potential that he won’t create an organized system to conduct the audit. As his supervisor, you could see it as a lack of readiness and just do the job herself (so it isn’t HER failure); or, you could see it as an opportunity to help the individual identify where his challenges were and then grow his skills by providing mentoring or professional development (so it can be HIS success).
  • See the growth opportunities and identify appropriate growth edges. Because people often equate leadership with hierarchical position, some supervisors or team leaders think that any task that they have to do is what they should help their supervisors or teams grow into as leaders. While I advocate that everyone can be a leader, I don’t think this means everyone wants to (or should strive to) move up the organizational ladder. Instead, I propose that within individual’s existing roles, there is opportunity for greater mastery and autonomy. The sweet spot for growing leaders is to identify where and how an employee or teammate wants to grow and then think about what competencies and skills they can develop in their current position to help them grow their leadership and prepare them for their next potential step. Even if someone doesn’t want to climb the ladder, they may be able to identify how they could develop more ownership and authority in their given role.
  • Be aware of your biases about leadership. If you are reading this, you are probably in a formal leadership position–an executive, a leader of teams, or as a supervisor of individuals. As you strive to grow leaders in your organization, it is important to be aware of your biases as a leader and that your current leadership position affords you privilege and power that others may not have. There is a lot to be said about personal bias as a leader, but in support of this topic, you need to know your own leadership style*. In knowing your own leadership style, you have to also know that one style does not fit all and in fact diverse styles of leadership can make organizations healthier. By recognizing your own approach to leadership, you can better analyze how someone else’s developing leadership style is similar and different to yours. Notice I didn’t say right or wrong, just different. Additionally, it is essential to recognize our own inherent biases around race, class, education level, gender, and/or age that shape our own perceptions of what a leader is. Growing others’ leadership is an essential opportunity to do some self-reflection around who gets more or less support in their professional development and why?
  • Understand the privilege of your position. As individuals step into more decision-making and accountable conversations, that they may need access to different people or structures in the organization. If someone sits at an executive level, calling a meeting with a director may be easy to arrange—often people make time to meet with people who have more organizational stature. However, it can be more difficult to get on someone’s calendar if you sit under a director on an  completely different team in the organization. As a supervisor or team leader, identify how you can ally with the emerging leader to support the communication they need. I’ve found even a simple “cc” on an email can promote better results in getting that meeting on the books.
  • Make your mission a shared endeavor. Organizational goals can sometimes feel lofty and detached from the day-to-day work of employees at all levels of the organization. As a supervisor or team leader, you have two approaches to leverage the organizational goals to help grow leaders. One, when discussing annual goals with your employees or teams, ask them to think about what they do on a day-to-day basis that connects or contributes to the goals. If they do X, how will it impact the organization in reaching its goal? If people can’t see how their proficiency and effort in their work help the organization do its work, they may have less incentive and motivation to lead at a greater level. Secondly, if their specific goals don’t have direct connection to the larger organizational goals, help them identify their responsibilities and leadership role in their own goals. Have them name what decisions they will need to make, what data they will track to show progress, and what support they will need to accomplish their goals. By having them name the conditions for success and their role in executing on their goals, they are stepping into greater leadership.
  • Use check-ins and feedback opportunities to grow leaders. Many organizations have standing team meetings or check-ins with supervisors. In many instances, those meetings are focused on the stuff of the work—how projects are going, how many dollars are generated, what deadlines are being met. However, to grow greater leadership, it is important to reflect on how leadership is developing and what would support them as leaders. Questioning and reflection skills can help promote this level of conversation, and if done as a consistent routine during meetings can help people name how they are growing as leaders. A couple of questions/reflection prompts:

               -What has led to your successes in your projects this week?

               -How did you respond to the challenges you faced this week?

              -What conversations or decisions would help you be more successful?

This list of suggestions not exhaustive, but an important starter kit as you step into empowering your employees and colleagues to step into greater leadership. In the end, promoting this idea of leaders at every level supports greater collective ownership of organizational goals, greater employee motivation, and a potentially stronger pipeline of leaders for the future of your organization.


*Note that there are a variety of ways to classify leaders and leadership types. It is more important to know your tendencies, reactions, and approaches as a leader than ascribe to one classification


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