The Effort and Uncertainty of Leadership Development


The professional development of your staff is one of a leader’s most important responsibilities. That’s easy to agree with in theory, but oh so much harder to live out in practice. Why? First of all, it can be hard to prioritize this responsibility among the urgent issues clamoring for your attention. The need for leadership development doesn’t have a deadline, and it is not screaming for attention (well, at least not until you are in a crisis situation . . . and then it is too late). It is more likely to be a persistent low buzz in the background, always there but easy to ignore.

Secondly — and in all likelihood the real reason we avoid leadership development — it takes real effort, and is rife with uncertainty. Not the “book learning” part of leadership development. That part is pretty easy, and frankly that is where far too many organizations stop. I’m talking about where the rubber meets the road. The point at which you give an emerging leader the chance to pursue their idea — even if it is different from the path that you would take, and even if you really need the project to succeed. Hmmm . . . suddenly that bold idea seems a bit more risky. Maybe they’re not ready . . . maybe this isn’t the right project . . . the budget is really tight, do we really want to experiment right now . . .?

If you think I am about to reveal the key to making leadership development quick and easy, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you are looking for long-term success, here are a few considerations to keep in mind.

  • They will stub their toe. (Didn’t you?) Expect it, and recognize that missteps are only “career limiting” if we don’t allow the emerging leader to learn from the experience and find a way around the challenge before them. Mistakes are how people grow, so don’t rescue your emerging leader too quickly. Let them sit with the challenge and identify possible solutions. (Note, this may be harder for you than it is for them!)
  • Don’t set them up to fail. Yes, let them stub their toe and learn from it, but also don’t turn them loose to sink or swim totally on their own. Where do you find that balance point? In questions. For maximum growth, don’t provide them with all the (your) answers — even if they ask for them. Rather, ask questions that will help them consider the critical variables that will impact their success.
  • The “right amount” of guidance is a moving target. How do you find the balance between imparting the wisdom that comes from your years of experience and supporting the emerging leader’s new ideas? Open and on-going “I” conversations are a good place to start — as in “I can share what I have experienced” rather than “this is what you should do.” Then listen, and recalibrate as needed.

Leadership development is not an exact science, but it is worth the effort. Of that, I am certain.

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