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Democratize Leadership Development

Training - Human resource development

written by Alice Waagen

I have spent my entire career developing leadership skills in others. Over those years I’ve read a tremendous amount on the topic of developing leaders, enough to have my own set of rants and raves on the issue. If there is one aspect of leadership development that I see as an unconscionable waste of time and money it is defining leadership as a box on the org chart.

When business leaders restrict leadership development to those who have a title, who have direct reports, or who have been dubbed “high potential” (whatever that means – I’ll rant on that another time), they take a powerful set of knowledge and behaviors and limit it to the top tier of the organization. More importantly, they send the message that acting decisively, persuading others to act, and focusing on results are the purview of others. So-called non-managers are sanctioned to work every day like assembly line workers, placing widgets in boxes and checking their brains at the door.

Okay, that might be a little harsh, so let me posit a different picture. If we define “leadership” as achieving results through the work of others, everyone in the organization, regardless of title or office size, performs leadership behaviors. Unless an employee’s job duties can be successfully executed without contact with others, he or she must be able to effectively communicate, inspire and motivate, provide guidance and feedback, and recognize achievements. Sounds an awful lot like leadership to me.

Much has been written about the need for agility, flexibility and efficiency in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous business climate. (See Leadership Development in a VUCA World) Defining and supporting the leadership role of everyone goes a long way to pushing decision-making down to its lowest level, removing road blocks and barriers to performance and improving overall efficiency.

Democratizing leadership development means rethinking how we develop and deliver leadership skills. Most leadership programs I see today focus on competencies by defining what behaviors constitute a leadership attribute like “effective communication” and using these behaviors as the basis for development. Well and good if every position had the same expected outcomes or results.

Competencies, the knowledge, skills and behaviors needed to be competent at execution, differ by the expected outcomes of the work performed. Democratized leadership development shifts the focus from the body of knowledge and skills to the expected outcomes and results. For example, the competency effective communication for one set of jobs might be how to communicate with peers or team members while for another could be how to communicate with others who are direct reports. The former would emphasize influence skills, the later would emphasize delegation and performance monitoring.

Seeing everyone as a leader is not just a squishy platitude; it is a very conscious way to maximize the performance of your entire organization. Expecting everyone to master and use leadership skills matched to their job requirements is common sense. It takes “leadership” out of the lofty domain of a privileged few and makes it expected of all.

Alice Waagen, PhD is president of Workforce Learning LLC, a management consulting company that provides business leaders with the skills and knowledge they need to build organizations that are productive and healthy. Dr. Waagen is passionate about helping her corporate clients and the missions that they serve.  She strives to make every engagement produce tangible value by helping business executives discover better, faster and more efficient ways to lead their workforces to business success.



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