Will the next generation of leaders be fit for purpose?

How to ensure your high potentials have what it takes to be exceptional
Elke Edwards, Managing Director, Ivy House

Elke Edwards, leadership developer, executive coach and sought-after speaker, challenges the way we are developing our emerging leaders. A rallying call for HRDs, talent specialists and educators, this article is for those who are ready to affect real change in their organisations and take a radically different approach to developing the next generation of leaders.

Think back over all the leaders you have known – in your school, university, community and the many organisations you have worked with. Ask yourself one question: how many of those leaders were exceptional? If you’re anything like me, it is no more than you can count on the fingers of one hand. Now consider this: There is a huge shortage of leadership talent, and yet we know more now about what it takes to become an exceptional leader than ever before. How can this be? It is certainly not because of a lack of spending on leadership development.The solution isn’t to be found in investing more. Instead we need to look at when we are spending this money and what we’re buying with it.

Where does great leadership begin?

One of my first leadership roles was heading up a team of around 150 outbound sales people. They were doing a tough job, making over 100 outbound calls a day, mostly to people who didn’t want to speak to them, and they were struggling to make the sales. My solution? Make it fun – real, full-on, high-octane fun. We employed a masseuse and an ice cream vendor. We ran competitions. People throughout the company were encouraged to bet on different sales teams, and the CEO used the telephone intercom to give hourly racing commentaries.

Prizes included holidays and trips to the local designer shops. It was crazy and sales soared from 3000 to over 30,000 a month. The bosses were happy, and promoted me away from the sales team, hoping I would spread fairy dust to other areas of the company.

A new sales manager was employed, and three months later sales had dipped to around 12,000. The CEO was raging – the new guy didn’t know what he was doing; he didn’t have the leadership quality; they’d made a big mistake. Not the case. The new sales manager was a brilliant leader – he is now the CEO of a major trading house. But he was a different kind of leader to me. For him, running sales competitions with a crate of cabbages as a prize wasn’t authentic. But that’s what he was being asked to do.

My mad, fun, (exhausting) sales environment was a completely transferrable leadership technique. But in the hands of a more introverted, considered leader it wasn’t authentic. And when things don’t feel authentic they don’t work.

When we teach people a series of leadership skills and techniques and ask them to get on with it, it’s really down to luck as to whether it’s a happy match or not. Leadership is idiosyncratic. No two leaders are exactly the same, and nor should they be. So, if we want to develop exceptional, authentic leaders, we must first connect them with what they have to bring to the leadership space. To do this requires a three-pronged approach.

“We are at an inflection point: a moment in history where it’s time to stop trying to fix the old model and instead make the leap to the next one. It will be better suited to the complexity and challenges of our times, and to the yearning in our hearts.”

The Future of Management Is Teal,
Frederic Laloux, July 2015

1 Self-Knowledge

Deep self-knowledge allows us to show up and lead from an authentic place. It is the process of understanding ourselves deeply. To know what strengthens us, where our purpose lies and what our values system is. To be familiar with our thinking and behavioural patterns and the impact they have. The odd psychometric test and team building day doesn’t begin to cover it.

2 Essential Expertise

There are some core skills, essential to everyone, that make a game-changing difference to the results we achieve. They are not tips and techniques – they are fundamental skills that are core to how we relate to ourselves and others. They govern how we build trust-based relationships, create teams, have authentic presence, master dialogue and stay well. It is this expertise that enables us to bring our full authentic selves to the leadership space.

3 Self-Mastery

A practice of self-mastery means recognising that we are wholly responsible for how we show up in the world. It is a commitment to lifelong learning with the understanding that there is always room for growth. Without this pivotal practice, all development risks being transitory, and the only direction we’ll ever be going is backwards.Whether we are leading ourselves, a global corporation or a movement to create meaningful social change, these 3 principles are the foundation from which we can grow to be our full authentic selves.

When is the right time?

We found out my daughter was dyslexic when she was eight. I sat her down and explained what it meant. I talked to her about the amazing strengths that dyslexics have, and about the current education system, how it was set up to test brains that were wired slightly differently to hers.

I explained that in order for her to perform well in the current system she would have to learn some techniques that would help her deliver information in the way they wanted it produced. I let her know that I would be there 100% to support her if she wanted to learn these techniques but if she wasn’t bothered I wouldn’t make her. She sat and thought for a few minutes, asked some questions about the level of commitment and what exactly she would have to do and then decided she did want to go ahead and learn them. We agreed that for it to work she would have to bring the books to me and ask for support. I would remind her if she forgot but the minute I heard “it’s not fair that I have to do extra work”, I would quietly close the books and get on with my day.

When I tell this story, people look at me agog. Surely that didn’t work? She clearly wasn’t old enough to take on the responsibility. But she did and over 18 months, bar a handful of times, she regularly chose to show up. Isn’t that the essence of self-leadership? The ability to choose your behaviour to get the result you want. And no, she’s not a model child. But she is a human being and human beings are wired to take control of their lives, if we let them.

So, why wait? The time to start developing our emerging leaders is now, as soon as we can. Let’s seek them out, give them time to find their feet and then get started. Not by layering on leadership tips and techniques but by giving them a powerful bedrock of self-knowledge, essential expertise and self-mastery that they can actively apply to their role.

Most organisations believe that people need to first gain experience before they can learn to lead. This thinking is based on the faulty assumption that people learn from experience. This may be true, but not in the way we might hope. In the absence of knowing better, what they often learn is destructive behaviours that can get short-term results, but that become a stuck modus operandi. By the time they finally get the official ‘leadership training’ they are so invested in their methods that the effort of ‘unlearning’ becomes too big a mountain to climb.

If we want to create change – if we want exceptional leadership to be the norm – our job is clear. We need to help people connect with who they are, what they bring to this world and how to do that in a powerful and positive way. We need to give them the kind of skills that mean they form positive habits – the kind of habits that mean they naturally collaborate, take feedback, adapt and change. The kind of habits that mean they build trust based relationships, handle difference and conflict in an authentic and respectful way, and the kind of behaviours which mean others will want to follow them. To do all of this we need to give ourselves the best chance of success. We need to start before the ego digs itself in, before people have got used to exercising positional power and we have to undo what has been learnt.

There is a shift waiting to happen

Within the young people rising up through our organisations today there is incredible potential waiting to be unlocked. When we give them access to everything they need to make this happen, I believe that the impact will be nothing short of transformative. We will see generation after generation of exceptional leaders, fully empowered to create positive change – in their businesses, their communities and their world. That’s a dream worth chasing.