Desperately Seeking Leadership


I had a great opportunity to teach a session on leadership to a group of students finishing up their MBA program at a major university last week. My presentation was titled “Leadership Matters – Lessons from the Front Line.” The feedback I received was positive but a bit surprising. The students said the presentation was extremely valuable because it exposed them to the real world of business leadership. They said it was the first time they had a chance to listen to a seasoned executive talking plainly about the challenges of leading people. As it turns out, there are actually no courses on leadership in their program of study.

The sad truth is that most managers today have not received any formal leadership training. Most employees are promoted into leadership positions, because of their education, seniority, technical skills or past performance. Most simply learn leadership “on the job” and many don’t have the necessary talent to be a leader. This is probably why there is such a leadership gap in business today.

In fact, the Gallup organization just released a study on leadership in the workplace and their findings were shocking. They found that 70% of employees remain disengaged at work, a number that has stayed consistent for the past 12 years. They also found that leadership played the most significant factor in the level of employee engagement. They found that leaders accounted for almost 70% of the variance in employee engagement across businesses and business units. Their conclusions were clear and disturbing. The lack of great leaders in companies is the primary reason for poor employee engagement.

Even worse, they concluded that great leaders are rare and difficult to find. Their study showed that only one in 10 people possess the high talent to lead people. Those 10% have the natural skills and abilities to engage employees, work with customers, retain top talent and create a high-performance culture. They also found that an additional 20% of people have some of the characteristics necessary to be a great leader. Those individuals can become great leaders if their company invests in coaching and developmental plans for them. Their conclusion was that great leaders are hard to find and most will require coaching and training to reach their full potential.

So how can you close the leadership gap in your organization? Let me suggest four areas of focus:

Look for leadership talents and abilities in your employees. Great leaders are hard to find but even harder to find if you don’t actively look for them. You should spend time with your employees looking for those that step up and naturally lead projects or initiatives.

Give potential leaders the opportunities to lead. If you have an employee with leadership potential, regardless of their seniority or experience, give them an opportunity to run a small project or lead an activity. This will give you an opportunity to validate your assumptions.

Promote leaders based on leadership talents and abilities. It is important to avoid the pitfalls of promoting based on seniority, technical skills or past performance. Only about 30% of your employees will actually have the talent to be a great leader. Look for leadership talent and abilities first.

Train your leaders like any other discipline. Employees with leadership talent still need coaching and training to become great leaders. Leadership skills are like any other skill. They must be taught, trained, and practiced to reach a high level of proficiency. Since leadership directly drives employee engagement and business performance, leadership training and development should be a top priority.

The Gallup study makes a clear case for solving the employee engagement crisis in this country. The solution is simple, we need better leadership. The problem is that great leaders are hard to find and companies today are not doing a good job indentifying, promoting, and developing leadership talent. As leaders in our organizations, we need to change this. We need to keep a careful eye out for leadership talent in our employees, give potential leaders a chance to lead, promote leaders based on leadership abilities, and develop our leaders through coaching and training. If we place a high value on leadership in our organization, we can begin to create the culture of employee engagement we so desperately need.

So what do you think? Are the results of the Gallup study a wake-up call? Are there other things that need to be done to solve the employee engagement crisis in America? Do you think great leaders are as rare as Gallup says they are? Why can’t every employee be a great leader?

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