I was once asked how I put on my trousers. I’d never been asked this before and the question took me aback, but I humoured the gentleman and thought about it (I had to visualize myself doing it!). So I told him I always start with the right leg first. Whereupon he asked me why I did it that way and how had I learned it. I realized then that I did it this way because that’s how my mom had done it when I was too little to wear them on my own.
There are many habits, skills and behaviours that we learn early on in our lives and which get locked in. The way we tie our shoelaces, for instance, or how we show up at funerals or how we treat members of other genders or people younger or older than us. We are socialized by family, peers, the education system and the culture and society we grow up in.
This includes leadership. Many of us develop leadership habits, behaviours, attitudes and values early on in life when we are given our first leadership roles.
In my school, good students (the ones who scored well in exams) were appointed as class monitors. My first such appointment was when I was in 6th grade. I remember even now, how strong a disciplinarian I was during my first stint, not allowing even the tiniest leeway. I ended up being suffocating. A very illuminating counselling session by my class teacher helped me understand the importance of flex and boundaries of tolerance. I realized then that I had only been replicating the somewhat draconian style of control I experienced at home, where you had to comply or be punished.
As we struggle in a dynamic and fast-paced world, to develop leaders, I think we need to realize that just as in life, in the corporate world also, behaviours, habits, engagement styles are all acculturated fairly early in the game.
The science of NLP and role modelling informs us that we are mimics and adept at replicating what we experience or see. The term “blank slate” has tremendous relevance. Freshers join an organization as eager learners, willing to adopt/adapt all that we need to, in order to succeed and make a mark. Whatever is “written” onto us, then takes hold.
After many conversations over the last few months on the subject of developing leaders, my conclusion is that we are doing it wrong. We invest too much money and developmental rigour on senior leaders. And we invest too little time, attention and rigour on first time leaders. The necessity to invest significantly on senior leaders AND a poor leadership bench is born of this imbalance.
The first leader/manager you experience has a disproportionate and often indelible impact on your own beliefs about leading. You imbibe habits, behaviours and styles, some consciously and others unconsciously. Many of which, over a period of time become part of you and begin to define your approach to leadership.
However, many first time leaders receive very little conscious development and support as they transition into the complexity of managing people and moving from delivering to ensuring delivery through others.
My submission then, is that we need to exert disproportionate energy, investment and rigour on developing first time managers. And here’s what I think would be crucial inputs or interventions:
- Helping them articulate the kind of leader they would like to be known as i.e. their leadership brand
- Helping them develop a sense of the values that underpin leadership roles and responsibilities
- Developing a balance between ego and humility – ego to drive aspiration, perseverance and resilience and humility to enhance learning agility and manage hubris/arrogance
- Skill building around:
- Managing meetings
- Resolving conflict
- Range of influencing styles
- Monitoring and reviewing to ensure delivery through others
- Performance management
- Crucial conversations
And this is just the first level of leadership which would be largely focused on managing down the line. Managing sideways, influencing seniors, influencing without authority, having an impact across functions, industry presence etc. will all follow.
It is these first-time leaders who set the benchmark and establish norms of leadership for the generation of future leaders who advance up the organization.
This will only begin to happen when organizations review how they allocate budgets and also reframe leadership development methods and approaches. I have always said and will once again emphasize that the armed forces are exemplars in this area and we would do well to learn from them.
Leadership development has less to do with curriculum, training calendars and nominations. It has everything to do with approach, culture, involvement of leaders across levels and collective responsibility for developing new leaders.
If you want to develop a strong leadership bench, start at the beginning.