The Best Strategy for Developing Leaders Is No Strategy

The Best Strategy for Developing Leaders Is No Strategy
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What is your leadership development strategy?

It’s a question I’ve been asked scores of times. It often happens when someone gets close enough to the places where I’ve been privileged to lead, and they see many high-capacity leaders being challenged and growing in their leadership. They think: There must be a curriculum, some materials, an apprentice model or some type of leadership development model in place.

What is the secret?

The secret is there is no secret. The strategy is a non-strategy. I’m convinced that it is better to have a leadership culture than a leadership development strategy. I’m not saying a strategy or training plan or process is bad. I just think a leadership culture is better. 

Leaders can’t be created by working through a prescribed curriculum, listening to lectures, or even having one-on-one conversations with great leaders. All those things might be good, but if they consistently created leaders, then we’d have a consistent supply of high-level leaders coming out of our colleges and seminaries.

Related: 6 Ways to Become a More Empathetic Entrepreneur

As Gary Cohen says in his Business Week article on leadership: "The right questions rely on the leader's ability to communicate authentic interest in learning the answer. They come from a place of not knowing. The right questions are open-ended, carry the possibility of true discovery, and demonstrate a willingness to share and bestow credit."

I agree with Gary in that leadership is about a culture of asking the right questions and developing people in the process. It’s just better when leadership development is in the air you live and breathe rather than a process to follow. This is especially important in a work setting desiring to recruit and retain millennials. As Dan Schawbel wrote in his Time article, "The Beginning of the End of the 9-to-5 Workday":

  • Gen Y workers won't accept jobs where they can't access Facebook
  • Gen Y workers value workplace flexibility over more money
  • Gen Y workers are always connected to jobs through technology

While good intentioned, a workplace with a structured and rigid leadership development track might not be as successful in recruiting millennials as those who have a culture of leadership from top to bottom. In a culture that consistently produces great leaders, there are several things that are happening.

1. Rising leaders are given significant responsibility. They don’t have to wait for a diploma or experience. Someone sees potential and lets them spread their wings and try stuff.

2. But more than responsibility, they are also given the authority to make decisions. They have the freedom to try stuff without coming back for permission.

3. With new leaders, there is a constant monitoring of how that person is wired. What do you love to do? What makes your heart beat fast? What skills do you have that are still untapped?

4. Veteran leaders refuse to micromanage. We usually try to control new leaders so we can protect the quality of the work or because we are convinced it won’t be as good if we aren’t involved. But this sucks the life out of leaders. They won’t hang around an organization where they aren’t given some space to lead.

5. They have a flexible work environment. It isn’t about sitting at your desk a certain number of hours—it is about getting accomplishing the goal. Growing leaders love that flexibility.

6. They believe the best about their team. Always. When accusations come, they determine to stand with them. This gives rising leaders the strength to innovate, create and experiment.

7. Failure is not a deal-breaker. In a leadership culture, you lean in to make sure valuable lessons have been learned and the one who failed is encouraged for her initiative.

8. A great leader gives away all the credit when someone on his team succeeds. He keeps none of it for himself. On the other hand, when someone messes up, he takes the blame. This breeds within the rising leaders loyalty, respect, and a desire to gain the same type of respect and integrity.

9. In a leadership culture, the veteran leader doesn’t assume he is the smartest person in the room. In fact, he knows in his heart that he isn’t. This desire to learn and value the contribution of others empowers rising leaders to participate, learn, grow and collaborate.

10. Experienced leaders are never satisfied with the number of leaders filling key positions. They look for ways to hand-off leadership or send out leaders so there is always a place for rising leaders to contribute.

Related: 9 Things Managers Do That Make Good Employees Quit

My answer, “We don’t have a leadership strategy, we have a leadership culture," is rarely satisfying to the person asking. They are looking for a product, something they can wrap their hands around and implement. But this desire for a tangible product might be detrimental to their desire for leadership development.

C.K. Prahalad & Gary Hamel discuss this in their Harvard Business Review on The Core Competence of the Corporation: “It is essential to make this distinction between core competencies, core products, and end products because global competition is played out by different rules and for different stakes at each level. To build or defend leadership over the long term, a corporation will probably be a winner at each level.”

A successful leadership culture can’t be seen, touched, or picked up, but it permeates a business at every level. It is a way of thinking. Some might suggest that my non-strategy is actually a strategy. I actually think it is more of a philosophy, a way that you think about the people on your team and in your organization.

Want to see how you are doing? Pull the leaders in your organization together and go through this list one by one. Ask, “How are we doing?” and “How could we do better?”

It’s an exercise that just might begin to change the air you breathe.

Related: 10 Habits of Ultra-Likable Leaders