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ACHIEVING SCALE

How to Create Future-Proof Leaders

When it comes to leadership development, a fundamental flaw occurs much more often than any other. Here's what it is and how to fix.
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Most growing organizations reach a point where the concept of leadership needs to move from being inherent and presumed to something more structured and planned.

It's at this stage that many businesses first establish a leadership development program--a formalized or semi-formalized process of developing future leaders, usually by a combination of teaching and mentoring/coaching.

The literature surrounding the design of leadership development programs is immense (here are the 632,000 Google results alone), and the debate about what makes for a successful program can get heated. But when it comes to developing the right kind of leaders, I've noticed one fundamental flaw recurs much more often than any other: the leadership development is conducted in the wrong tense.

How are you framing leadership? 

Sounds arcane and obtuse, I know, but bear with me. Here's what I mean:

Most leadership development programs are based on an underlying set of core competencies-- the skills, behaviors and attitudes that we want our newly coined leaders to exhibit. After all, if we're going to develop leaders, we'd better first establish clearly what sort of leaders we want, right?

And this is where the question of 'tense' arises.

You see, most organizations (whether they do it by themselves or hire a firm of consultants to do it for them) identify their set of core competencies, the foundational building blocks of their leadership development, by asking a version of this question:

"What skills, behaviors and attitudes do leaders need, in order to succeed in this organization?"

Take a look at that question, and see if you can spot the inherent flaw.

It lies, as I have hinted already, in the tense in which it is asked. The question presumes that the organization's current state will continue. It predicates a definition of leadership that maintains the status quo. In essence, it will result in a program that develops leaders much like the leaders we already have.

And that may or may not be what we need for the future. To succeed in changed circumstances. To grow our business beyond what it is now.

In the leadership programs I develop, we start with a question couched in the future tense, and centered on the organization, not on the individual:

"What skills, behaviors and attitudes do leaders need, in order for this organization to succeed in the future?"

Grab a yellow pad and pen, and try answering that question for your own organization. Even if you're not considering a leadership development program, I think you'll find the answers revealing and challenging.

Ensure your organization is prepared for future challenges and opportunities. Download a free chapter from the author's WSJ best-seller, "Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization On the Growth Track - and Keeping It There" to learn more about building a world-class culture that will rapidly accelerate the growth of your business.

Last updated: Nov 14, 2013

LES MCKEOWN | Columnist

Les McKeown is the president and CEO of Predictable Success, a leading adviser on accelerated business growth. He has started more than 40 companies and was the founding partner of an incubation consulting company.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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