Finding the Leaders You Need: Time to stop overthinking it

As someone happily steeped in leadership development, I read a lot of the research, opinions, and articles out there. Naturally, I noticed a recent report on a survey of 510 executives, which found “overwhelming evidence” that only a small percentage believe they are effectively developing the leaders their organizations need. The McKinsey & Company poll showed that only 11% of executives surveyed agreed with the statement that their leadership development interventions achieve and sustain the desired results. Similarly, a recent Fortune survey, found that only 7% of CEOs believe their companies are building effective leaders.

The McKinsey report goes on to say that there is no silver bullet for successfully identifying and developing leaders – and that more than 40 key actions must be taken to increase chances of success to 80%. The key actions identified range from adapting HR systems to coaching and “designing for the transfer of learning."

While I certainly agree that there is no silver bullet, I would be very sorry to see top executives trying to manage 40 or more key actions to deliver on their leadership development imperative.

I do agree that it starts at the top, but it’s not about setting out to deliver an unachievable litany of tactical actions with the hope that they will, at some point, add up to better leadership development. It’s about understanding a few important realities that can make a critical difference when developing leaders – and especially when considering who those people should be. Here are my top three.

Reluctant leaders can be some of the best leaders

It used to be that the people who ended up at the top of the org chart were those who did the most ambitious overachieving over time. And while there will always be high achievers who are motivated to ascend the corporate ladder, there are also plenty of talented people who look up and say, “I’ve seen the top job, and I don’t want it.” Their priorities and values are different, and they aren’t zealous about assuming authority.

These individuals don’t automatically think of themselves as leaders. And that’s precisely why they can become some of the best ones. For many people confronting the choice to lead, what ultimately calls them to action is a sense of purpose – a possibility that warrants risking the potential difficulty or scrutiny of leadership.

My colleagues worked with a very competent manager who enjoyed the respect of all her peers, yet had no interest in a larger role. Even when her boss resigned, she didn’t consider vying for the position. But when she saw that the job might be filled by someone less qualified, something changed. With colleagues actively encouraging her, she moved beyond her reluctance and stepped up to apply for the job. In her words: “When I realized that the future of the team was at stake, I started to rethink my position.” And before too long, she realized that she really liked being in charge – because of the good things she could help make happen.

This is how some highly capable – yet not conventionally ambitious – people find their way to executive positions. There wasn’t a complex HR system or expensive tactic that brought this professional to a leadership role where she and her team would make great advances – it was feeling compelled to make the difference she knew that she could.

So, don’t overlook that quiet middle manager down the hall. Or that reliable team player. He or she could be one of your next top executives.

Leaders are made by the commitments they make

There’s a common misperception that effective leaders have a unique set of characteristics that naturally make them leadership material. There are literally thousands of books and studies about the traits of top leaders – charismatic, dynamic, visionary, bold, and so on. And while these may be accurate observations about how the best leaders are perceived, they don’t speak to the genesis of leadership.

The best leaders I’ve known came into their leadership strength because of a commitment to something much larger than themselves – a possibility yet to be realized.

Consider the example of a newly-appointed CEO as he took charge of an energy business just after it was sold off by its parent company. The firm was essentially the branch office of a global institution, suddenly expected to stand on its own as an independent New Zealand company. The organization was burdened with a 99-year-old “big oil” culture and desperately in need of a new and positive identity. Expectations for the venture were generally low and employees were less than motivated, but this leader was committed to the company developing a performance orientation that would position them to succeed on all fronts.

And that’s exactly what happened, but not because this individual had some sort of inexplicable, positive influence on people. He simply took a stand for what the company could be, set incredibly high performance goals, and then led people through the steps required to get there. Within three years, the company emerged as the #1-preferred New Zealand energy company, received top accolades for its new brand and reputation, more than doubled its book value, and completed a hugely successful IPO.

It all began with this (now award-winning) leader taking a strong stand for what he believed the people in the organization could accomplish – an aspiration for their future that people literally couldn’t resist. This executive’s success was about his commitment to defying the odds – a commitment so strong that it generated compelling motivation throughout the ranks of the business. Under his leadership, people simply refused to let anything get in their way.

So, as you look around your organization for potential leaders, remember that it’s not about the ambition to be a leader. It’s about someone’s commitment to making big things happen – things bigger than themselves.

Leaders are everywhere

I have good news: It’s a myth that leaders are scarce. Potential leaders are abundant. You may find them where you least expect.

For example: A veteran manufacturing manager was looking forward to a somewhat early retirement when there was a serious accident at one of his company’s sites. The executive team turned to him, asking that he take charge of the facility as they recovered and rebuilt. Despite his personal plans, he decided to postpone retirement and take the reins. It wasn’t because of the spotlight or the executive title. The situation spoke to him, and the opportunity to step up in a time of need became more important than any competing motivation. He took charge and led the facility from crisis to stability.

Certainly, in each of the examples I’ve mentioned, some leadership development helped. But there was no complicated algorithm guiding the selection process. None of these people possessed a prototypical combination of certain traits. Those around them wouldn’t have described them as charismatic or as rousing speakers. But you won’t find charm at the core of effective leadership, and no amount of smooth-talking will be a game-changer for any company.

The many myths about leadership leave organizations with a loophole. Forget about “born leaders” and people having the “right stuff.” These notions keep organizations busy playing a needle-in-a-haystack game that can swallow up valuable resources. Moreover, such thinking can undercut the work of developing people to be effective leaders – which is a far more realistic possibility than that of finding people innately endowed with legendary leadership capabilities.

Sure, at times, the best leaders might seem a little magical or appear to know something we don’t. But the special powers they possess are things like having the courage to pursue tremendous challenges, or the commitment to make something happen even when they don’t know how…yet. If you can step away from the notion of a leadership “track” and see leadership as something within reach for more people than you realized, you might be surprised at the progress you make in identifying and developing the leaders you need.

If you can shift your perspective from scarcity to abundance, your organization can take greater ownership of leadership development, encourage people to make big commitments and take big steps, and then give them the support and tools to be the best leaders possible. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated. You need leaders who make a conscious commitment to the job. Think of them as a new kind of “natural leader” – people doing it for the right reasons. It could be you have more leadership potential around you than you realize.