How To Develop a New Generation of Leaders

Posted by on Sep 27, 2013 in Leadership | 0 comments

Next Gen Leaders

A plan to develop your next leaders requires answering three questions:

  1. How do you define leadership?
  2. What are the most important skills and behaviors necessary for leadership in your organization?
  3.  How do you nurture those skills and behaviors through mentoring, training, coaching or modeling (developing a culture of leadership)?


I define leadership as the ability to see the big picture, determine a direction, and inspire others to move beyond the status quo.  There are roles and titles of leadership, but there are also acts of leadership that come from thinking like a leader at any level.

Skills and Behaviors:

Awareness is the meta-skill of leadership.  Without that, nothing else matters.  We need to be aware of ourselves and how we impact others.  I call this presence.  We need to be aware of the world beyond our corner – the wider influences on staff, on customers, on our community.   We need to be able to shift our awareness from narrow focus to wide angle and back, in order to assess conditions, create plans, and manage details.

With awareness, we can tackle some of the primary skills necessary for leadership which don’t usually get taught through the technical skill sets we learn to do our jobs.   I categorize them broadly as self-management, decision making, handling challenge, and process management.

Self-management is required for other management.  Self-awareness of our presence is crucial.  Clearly understanding our work style, and how we differ from others comes first.  Have a bit of fun and take my Shapes Quiz to see how you differ from those around you. Understanding who we are (values, assumptions, filters through which we make judgments because of our personality, background, etc.) allows the possibility of managing how we react to others who are different.  This includes how our generational values and experiences differ from those we are leading.  We need to try to see the world through the eyes of the next generation of leaders so we understand them better.

I start leadership training by asking people to assess themselves, and to search out feedback from others (e.g. ask 3 people for 3 adjectives describing you – a peer, a boss, and a direct report).   Then we need to examine how those characteristics and the way they manifest as behaviors serve us well and how they get in our way. I include how we communicate in this category, both in person and virtually. Through coaching, or asking for immediate feedback from friends and colleagues, we can start to make appropriate changes. Good self-management leads to good management of others!

Decision making is another skill we are often not taught, and our young leaders get stuck making decisions too quickly, or waiting too long, or involving the wrong people.  They can learn a matrix of assessments to determine whether the decision is theirs, or belongs down the organizational ladder or up the organizational ladder.  If it is theirs, they can then decide if it can be made alone, with input from others, or if it needs to be collaborative or consensual in order to build buy-in.  Understanding the pacing of decisions and the scope of information necessary is another skill to learn.

Handling challenge is a broad description of the skills necessary to handle disappointment, failure, resistance, conflict, etc.   Young leaders need to understand how to say no, how to hold people accountable.  They need to learn to anticipate and bear the loneliness of leadership when they have to make unpopular decisions.  They need to understand that resistance is normal and part of most change processes, and that people usually resist when they have fear or are trying to protect themselves.

They also need to be able to manage the resistance they feel in themselves when someone is challenging them.  And they need to be able to learn how to explore conflict without taking it personally, and use it as important information.  Both for themselves and for their people, they need to learn the necessary value of failure, and how to manage their individual responses to it.

Process management is the skill of looking at what we do and how its done to improve it.  This could include taking the waste out of a project plan, or learning to lead a great meeting, or to have a difficult conversation.  It is understanding that there is always both the content of the work and the process of the work.  It is understanding that what’s best for your department may not be best for the whole organization, and learning when sub-optimization is necessary for ultimate success.

Just take meetings alone – with all the cross-functional teams, meetings have become so ubiquitous that if everyone had the skills to lead a great meeting, including creating the right agenda, knowing what to include in a meeting and what to communicate in advance, how to encourage everyone to engage, and how to summarize and determine next steps clearly, we’d have enormous resource capacity improvement.

Nurturing Leadership: 

Future Leaders

How to go about teaching and nurturing leadership skills in the most effective way possible is the last question.  It starts with being intentional about developing the skills of leading as specifically as you develop the skills of finance, or sales, or engineering, or any other technical skill set.  Just because people are good at what they do doesn’t mean they will be good at leading.

We also need to examine what investment we want to make in developing young leaders, and explore what they perceive as an investment in them (it’s often not the same).  They will be highly likely to move around in their careers so we can’t just think about developing leaders for ourselves.  The implicit contract of loyalty between employers and employees is long over.  But we can think about treating them so well that once they enrich their experience and training, they may come back to us.

In large organizations there are whole teams of people involved in identifying high potential employees and designing classroom training that develops their leadership skills and behaviors.

Smaller organizations can bring in outside help, consultants on an as-needed basis.  Coaching has been proven to be a highly successful method of developing leadership skills using on the job daily challenges.  The return on investment is well-worth it for any smaller organization.

Tiny organizations need to band together to develop leadership through their chambers and through their professional organizations.   They can work with others to share the task.
Developing a next generation of leaders isn’t just an organizational challenge, it’s a community challenge and even a societal challenge.   We need to support organizations of young people, such as the Cape Cod Young Professionals.  Just look at Congress for an example of how lack of leadership skill impacts us all, now and in the future.

We need to start early – in the schools, and not wait until people are at the senior levels of their careers.  What can you do?  What steps can you take to join in this challenge?






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