A Leadership Dilemma

Leadership is a topic that I see a lot of posts about on LinkedIn and other social channels. Frequently, it’s some quip about what leadership is or isn’t, or posts about specific behaviors that represent good leaders or bad ones alike. Everyone has an opinion on what makes a good leader or a bad one, but the truth is that there is no specific formula on what constitutes good leadership.

There are certainly basic human qualities that are important to all relationships such as humility, empathy and kindness. Lacking those can certainly make someone poor a leader, but on their own they do not ensure a successful leader. Successful leadership skill requirements vary with specific roles much like any other job. Most successful football coaches tend to be demanding task masters with strong attention to detail, while successful marketing leaders typically espouse flexibility, loose boundaries and playful environments to drive creativity. While there is no one correct way to successfully lead, specific leadership roles will typically dictate the importance of certain skills more than others.

I have always felt that leadership by example sets the bar for a good leader, but that in itself is ambiguous as well and could mean many different things to people depending on their work environment. Being the hardest worker on an assembly line demonstrates an aspect of leadership by example, but doesn’t necessarily make that person a good leader of people.

In society we tend to think of certain roles as being “leadership roles”. A drill sergeant in the military is certainly a leadership role, but are all drill sergeants good leaders? How about the volunteer Boy Scout Troop Leader or even the average high school principal? The obvious answer is…maybe. Leadership skills are definitely required to be successful in these roles, but just because an individual has been hired to perform a role doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the skills necessary to be successful.

I believe that point to be root of the issue within most of the corporate workforce today. Typically, in corporate America, people are promoted into leadership or management roles because they have become proficient within their current role. They may be an expert in technology or marketing or possess some other unique skill, and they may be one of the hardest working and most successful people in the organization. Due to their track records of success and in order to advance their careers and salaries, they are promoted into positions of leadership where they will typically have oversight over a department, a project and likely other people.

This is usually when things get a bit interesting…

We have a highly successful and proficient individual who has mastered the skills of a functional or technical role, taken them out of the role of a doer, and put them into the role of a leader. Their overall goal changes from delivering value and results through their own work to one of delivering value and results through others.

It’s been my experience that most organizations don’t even routinely provide training for this new leader, and they basically assume that their functional or technical proficiency will naturally translate into the role of leader.

For example, in the field of technology, let’s say a Senior Programmer with 10+ years of successful experience in delivering software solutions is promoted to Software Manager and is now responsible for eight resources with varying technical skill sets. As a Senior Programmer, their success criteria is derived from delivering quality code, staying up-to-date on technology, meeting deadlines and delivering innovative solutions. As the Software Manager, the same success criteria applies to their team overall, but some of their new success criteria includes representing the team in management meetings, providing strategic direction and expectations for the group and motivating and engaging the team while supporting their career growth.

As you can see, the success criteria for the individual has changed dramatically, and with little or no training or experience, what do you think typically happens? You guessed it…the individual continues to focus on the aspects of the role that they already know, such as delivering code and delving into new technology. In many cases the individual will still focus on writing code themselves because they enjoy it or may feel it is easier to deliver results on their own rather than relying on their team. This generally leads to team dysfunction and employees feeling not trusted or valued by their boss.

This example obviously focuses on technology, but similar principles apply to most any line of business from marketing to operation to sales. We’ve all experienced it – all you have to do is read your LinkedIn feed to learn about the crappy bosses that are out there. “A good leader cares about me”…”A good leader doesn’t take credit for the team”…”Bad bosses don’t set expectations and then blame me when I don’t meet them”. The list of quotes goes on and on…

Maybe it’s time that we stop blaming the bad bosses out there and focus on the lack of leadership development and leadership selection processes in corporate America. Just think of the example that I outlined earlier – we not only took a highly skilled and successful individual out of their role, which weakened our technical capabilities, but we then placed them in a role that they were either not ready for or not capable of, and ultimately drove disillusionment and disengagement through the entire team. Think of how damaging that is for the team, the department and ultimately the organization.

Maybe it’s time that we make it acceptable for strong functional or technical resources to grow and develop their careers within their areas of strength and not be forced to take on leadership roles to adequately grow their salaries. I recognize that some progressive companies do have dual career paths, but that is not the norm.  A good leadership development programming can also go a long way in helping grow leaders from within your organization, but just as importantly, we should identify the critical leadership skills for a role and develop a method to measure them within a candidate and hire or promote for those skills rather than defaulting to functional or technical expertise.

One of the worst experiences that you can have in your career is being saddled with a bad boss. It’s a helpless feeling that has lasting impact and ultimately drives many people from their jobs. If employee engagement and retention is a goal, which I believe it is for most corporations, focusing on this root problem might be a good place to start.

Then maybe we’ll stop seeing all of the “Good Leader…Bad Leader” quotes on social media.