No More Leadership Checklists

At the time of this writing, the accepted line is that leadership is not a position, a title or target. Others go further to say that leadership is not a checklist of common traits shared by all leaders. I agree with these two statements. I believe different leaders have different stripes. I often use the expression ‘leadership team’ to reference an executive team. However, if we accept there is a clear distinction between managers and leaders, then it is safe to say not all members of an executive team are leaders simply because they are part of the executive team. A promotion to a senior role does not bestow the ability to lead. Neither does having a mandate and a team that you manage make you a leader. In fact, leaders may be found in all levels of an organization.
This is not bad news. We should not want a checklist for identifying leaders. If you had one, what would result is an mvp (minimum viable person), a baseline for compliance, a status quo mentality. It would not do well to differentiate your business and organization from your competition. You could lose competitive advantage as such a checklist would be replicable.
What does this mean for business?
Different businesses — industries, objectives, challenges — require different strategies and perspectives. The head of a not-for-profit is not expected to have the same mission and vision as the head of a hedge fund. In selecting an individual to lead your organization, think first about your business’s strategy and then find someone who demonstrates the ability to lead your people through the next generation. It is important to note here that when your company grows, expands into new markets, or changes products or strategies; you may need to change leaders.
How do companies identify the next age of leaders?
Well, to lead implies there are people willing to follow you. This does not mean that everyone with a following is a leader. We probably would not think of all instagram influencers as leaders simply because they have followers. We may consider them leaders if they have a noble cause, and their followers share a belief in this cause. In business, if your people are not operating from a set of shared beliefs, they will have different definitions of success, resulting in competing commitments. Where as a set of shared beliefs in service to a common mission and vision would likely increase organizational alignment, resulting in better performance.
At the heart of this relationship between leaders and followers is, well, a relationship. It is one person connecting with the hearts and minds of another person. Knowing this, we can identify individuals within the organization who are leader material by looking at those who interact exceptionally well with others. An examination of relationships between individuals in the organization could find the individuals who have the trust of those around them to steer them in the right direction. Look at who is being sought out for information, expertise and advice. Look at who bridges groups and connects people. Look at who stands up for their fellow peers and for what they believe to be right. Look at who is offering solutions to problems and resolving conflicts. Look at who is teaching their peers about the latest market trends. Look at who is giving their peers praise and encouragement. Today, we call these people influencers and ambassadors. Tomorrow, we will call them leaders.
No leader will come with all the qualities and capabilities you want. No leader is perfect because no leader is done learning. When learning ends, leading ends. That is correct. The ability to lead is learned. Leaders are not born, they are made. They are forged by their environment and defined by their actions.
Companies have years long succession plans but all these do is breed numbness, stagnation, conformity and mediocrity. They certainly don’t position your company well for the uncertain economy we live in or the future of work. Gautam Mukunda had a theory that looked at leaders as ‘filtered’ versus ‘unfiltered. ‘Filtered’ leaders follow the usual progression and politics to reach their positions. We have all worked with these people. We know how to identify them and can even predict their behaviors. Well, so too can your competitors. ‘Unfiltered’ leaders on the other hand have more unorthodox means by which they reach their roles. These are the visionaries and disruptors. If you’re looking to simply maintain the status quo, go with your tried and true ‘filtered’ leaders. I promise you, not only will your competitors see them coming, they may even buy them away. If you want to be innovators and change-makers of your industry, find those ‘unfiltered’ individuals inside and outside your organization. Then design teams to fill competency gaps, and create programs and opportunities for individuals to continue to learn and develop their knowledge, skills and abilities.
What do we do with these individuals once we have identified them?
I would like to note that ‘filtered’ leaders are not bad people. They used the frameworks available to them (ie. legacy succession plans and a ‘follow the leader’ routine). They played the game. The solution requires a redesign of the structures and practices in place that encourage this behavior. Strip the company of these frameworks and rebuild better frameworks. One example is to replace succession plans with strategy committees and team challenges that allow individuals to unleash their full potential.
I recommend organizations create actual leadership teams in the form of strategy committees and team challenges: groups of individuals who demonstrate the beliefs and relationships their business requires. The group should be from different backgrounds, locations, departments and levels of the organization to ensure you have the appropriate diverse perspectives represented. Diversity of perspective provides diversity of thought, which provides alternative solutions, which increases opportunities for success.
Committees: present hypothetical problems. These should not be actual business problems, but rather ‘what if’ scenarios that address internal and external environments. Give them time frames. Then let them brainstorm strategies for solving these hypothetical scenarios.
Teams: present real problems. These should allow individuals to contribute to solving real business challenges. Give them boundaries and a budget, and opportunities for them to evaluate their own teamwork and teammates. Then get out of their way and let them work.
I recommend you monitor, measure and record these team and committee interactions. This is because they have the potential to produce good for both the business and individuals. They offer opportunities for individuals to demonstrate AND develop their ability to lead. They also provide solutions to current and future problems. Finally, they provide troves of data — interactions, actions, reactions, decisions, strategies, performance, solutions, results and evaluations — that can be studied for further benefit.