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Growing Leaders

Agreement is nearly universal that leadership can be learned. If leadership means being an executive, then there are clearly learnable skills for this role. But if leadership is an occasional act of influence, not a role,  then it's not so clear what can be developed.

Leadership conceived as challenging the status quo to promote a better way is what Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela did when they courageously advocated change. Whenever innovative knowledge workers champion a new product or process to management, they are showing this kind of leadership bottom-up.

Leadership Traits

Fewer traits are required to show such leadership than to be an executive:

  • An idea for a better way, however small and local.
  • The courage to promote it.
  • Influencing skills.

The required courage and influencing skills are situational, however. They depend on the magnitude of the change, the strength of resistance and whether the merits of the proposal can be demonstrated. If you are advocating greener practices that are expensive, you need a fair amount of courage, some sharp influencing skills and some evidence to show the benefits of your proposal.

But suppose that you are a front-line innovator in a company that makes mobile phones and you come up with an idea for an iPhone beater. If you can demonstrate to senior management that you are onto something big, you shouldn't need much courage to promote it. And if they buy it, you will have shown leadership upwards on a one-off basis. Even if you have poor influencing skills senior management might buy your idea if it is compelling enough.

This example illustrates how leadership can be shown in some circumstances without any special skills beyond having a great idea, where content really is king! While you need courage and polished influencing skills in other situations, the fact that such traits are not universally essential shows that leadership cannot be defined in a way that requires them.

Leadership and Creativity

Your drive to show such leadership is based on your desire to differentiate yourself, make your mark, challenge the status quo and create a better world. It's called youthful rebelliousness, the same drive that underlies creativity and we know that younger people are often the most creative. Leadership and creativity are similar but different. You can show leadership by advocating someone else's idea if you aren`t personally creative.

Creativity can't be learned although you can develop some related skills such as how to brainstorm to improve creative thinking. The drive to lead has the same basis as the drive to create and is similarly unlearned. Actually, even if we define leadership as being in charge of a group, the drive to dominate is common to all higher animals so isn't learned either.

Fostering Leadership

Like creativity, leadership can be fostered with nurturing and support. Managers need to be receptive to upward challenges and employees need more confidence to challenge their bosses. While it is possible to have a leadership impact with poor influencing skills if the content is sufficiently compelling, employees could be more successful in showing leadership with stronger influencing skills. Unlike the basic drive to change the world, influencing skills can be learned. But such skills are also used in sales so they are not uniquely leadership skills.

Executive Development

If leadership means simply showing the way for others, then what is currently called leadership development needs to be reframed as executive development. This might be hard for the leadership development industry to swallow. Like sex, leadership sells. It's what executives want to buy. But this is an opportunity for the leadership development industry to lead by example and offer programs in line with the reality of what leadership means.

Ethics, integrity, emotional intelligence, how to get the best out of people, among other topics, constitute executive development, not leadership development.

Daniel Goleman said that maturity is another word for emotional intelligence. The implication for young knowledge workers is that they need to grow up before they can be considered leaders. How disempowering, not to say patronizing, is that?

Ironically, urging budding young leaders to become more emotionally intelligent could be disastrous if it dampens their leadership instincts thus turning leaders into managers. But this is what the current leadership development industry is really doing: turning leaders into managers.

Senior executives also show a lot of leadership even if they become more risk averse and less creative as they mature. An example would be Lou Gerstner's recognition that IBM needed a radical change of direction. He was a newcomer to IBM however. Like young people, newcomers are often more creative than long-term employees.

Different Kinds of Leadership

We have two kinds of leadership. One involves being in charge of a group. The other is a one-off act of influence which can come from any direction, bottom-up as well as top-down or from outside the business:

  • The Sony employee who developed PlayStation showed leadership bottom-up when he convinced Sony management to adopt his product.
  • Martin Luther King had a leadership impact on government when his demonstrations against segregation on buses led the U.S. Supreme Court to ban such discrimination.
  • Jack Welch's ideas, such as being number one or two in a market, had a leadership impact on businesses around the world.
  • Apple shows leadership to its competitors in music, software and cell phones.
  • A professional golfer takes the lead mid-way through the third round.
  • A new employee works in a much greener way than anyone else in the organization and, without explicitly advocating it, everyone else gradually follows suit.

These examples of leadership share some common features:

  • Showing the way for others either by example or explicit advocacy.
  • Not in charge of those led or involved in execution.
  • Completely distinct from management.
  • Can come from any direction, including outside the organization.
  • One-off, discrete acts of influence, impacts, not ongoing roles.
  • Being ephemeral, it rapidly shifts to others.

It is leadership based on promoting a better way that innovation-driven businesses need if they want to win the war of ideas. The urge to show such leadership can only be nurtured, not developed. Only influencing skills can be learned.

Practical Steps for Growing Leaders

  • Reframe leadership as a one-off act that can be shown up as well as down.
  • Clearly differentiate leadership from management.
  • Upgrade management so it is seen as a supportive, facilitative function.
  • Train budding leaders to focus on content first, influencing skills second.
  • Coach managers on how to foster bottom-up challenges.
  • Reward teams and those who manage them for generating the most useable ideas.


  • Greater chance of winning the war of ideas through faster innovation
  • More fully engaged knowledge workers.
  • More widely distributed ownership for organizational direction.
  • Less pressure on executives to be heroes, to monopolize ownership.

Published May 17, 2010 in Management Issues as "Developing Future Leaders."  

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