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An army of 1000: The leadership development journey


An army of 1000: The leadership development journey

One of my favourite Chinese idioms is, “…while it is easy to raise an army of 1,000, a competent General is hard to come by.”

It rings true in its simplicity by reminding us how rare good leadership is. But if we dig a little deeper beneath the surface, the idiom gives us a clue about the elusive nature of leadership. A competent General may signify great leadership in an army, but would that same General be as valuable or effective in a volunteer organisation, a performing arts society or a football team?

To drive the business forward it is critical to understand what type of Generals you currently have and what type of Generals you will need in order to create long term sustainability and shareholder value. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, leadership philosophies that worked for Google, Apple and Amazon may not be good for your business. I’m suggesting that you should discard the generic “template” of what great leadership is and take a closer, detailed look within your own business to strategically plan the way forward.

But where to start…?

1. Establish an objective picture of the current state

In my experience, the most difficult part of the entire process is an honest audit, at the highest level, with respect to the culture of the business and the competencies/strengths of the existing leadership team. Before any leadership development journey can commence, this part of the process has to be done thoroughly and scientifically. The mistake most often made is to ask the CEO this question, and then walk away assuming that this paints the entire picture. Remember that, consciously or unconsciously, you’re asking the CEO to objectively, and possibly critically, comment on his or her individual leadership – which can be quite threatening. The key is to test the relevant elements of the leadership team throughout the organisation. Engagement surveys, climate studies, performance review documents, 360-degree feedback, assessment data and direct feedback from staff at all levels will help you to understand the culture of the business you’re dealing with as well as the prevailing leadership philosophy.

Most businesses want to be innovative, learning agile, customer-centric and a great place to work for staff. But if your business is reactive, chaotic, plagued by bureaucracy and dictatorial management styles, then it is crucial for the leadership team to recognise this and cultivate a change mindset. If the leadership team is closed off to change or defensive (even after having been confronted with the objective picture) you may have to spend even more time in this phase of the process. The fact that the leadership team is engaging with you is a good sign, because at some level this signifies recognition that change is needed.

2. Identify and agree on key leadership competencies for the future

In tandem with step 1, it is critical to begin work on defining the leadership competencies required for the future. This can be a creative and engaging process. In spite of this, it’s important to keep the process grounded and linked to the realities of what has emerged in step 1. If you’re currently a social services department that processes grants and you feel that you want to be the next Google – there may need to be a reality check either on the practicalities of the vision or the time it would take to achieve this. In reality, things are rarely this extreme. Usually, the stated strategic intent to become more innovative, growth minded, entrepreneurial or customer-centric has to be translated into Learning Agilities and leadership competencies that will drive this strategy through to development of more effective behaviours. In some cases, there is already a leadership competency framework in place that needs slight tweaks or changes but largely will remain in place.

Even more critical to identifying your future leadership competencies is being clear on how those competencies are going to be measured and assessed. Remember, we have to be able to measure our progress along the journey at every stage and establishing measurable competencies at the start will set you up for success. It is one thing to say we want our managers to “have an entrepreneurial mindset” and another thing altogether to be able to measure this objectively. In our example above, entrepreneurial mindset in the social services department might mean new ways of processing transactions so that more effective payments occur with less errors. Not every definition of entrepreneurial mindset entails changing the world or shifting markets through disruption, but it has to make sense in the reality in which you find yourself.

3. Assess leadership on current and future competencies

Once you’ve identified your basket of leadership competencies, you need to get a sense of how long the journey is going to take. The only way to do this is to assess your leadership against current competencies (where you are) as well as against the future-focused competencies (where you want to be) and understand the size of the gap between the two. Before assessing anyone, make sure you engage with the leaders to be assessed so that they understand the background, thinking and intent of the process and recognise the importance of leadership in driving the business forward.

Typically, there are three outcomes from the assessments. Some leaders will already be demonstrating future-focused competencies with one or two small areas they need to develop. Others will have significant gaps where focused growth and development is necessary over time (anything from 1-3 years) in order for them to improve their leadership competencies. Lastly, there will be a group of managers that have leadership styles and competencies that sit at odds with the future envisaged for the business.

4. Have a strategy to take leadership on the journey

As much as you’ll be tempted to avoid the group of leaders that sit at odds with the leadership vision, you have to tackle it. There is no hard-and-fast rule here and the way forward should take into account the overall future destination. Some businesses advocate a softer approach whilst others are more aggressive in creating exit strategies for those leaders (particularly when the strategic horizon is shorter). Equally, there has to be a strategy to help leaders with their growth and development to assist them in acquiring and mastering new leadership competencies. It’s worth bearing in mind that closing competency gaps should take a blended approach. Whilst part of the initial development may be theoretical, the mastering is in the doing, so be sure to have mentoring, coaching, feedback, action learning and on-the-job practice to embed new competencies.

In a broader sense, it’s also important that the entire business (whether you’re a workforce of 20 or 20 000) gets to hear about the leadership journey you are embarking on. There is something about stating one’s intentions publicly that shows commitment to an endeavour more than a PowerPoint slide deck ever could. And besides – your future leaders may be sitting at lower levels of the business currently; getting them involved now means you’re already one step ahead of the curve.

5. Identify change agents to make the magic happen

In addition to leadership competencies, there are individuals that you must identify in the business that possess change-readiness and the capability to inspire the army behind the vision. This change-readiness can be measured via Learning Agility – the ability to develop new, effective behaviours in the face of new experiences, and apply these successfully.

These change agents may already be leaders or they may be future leaders/high-potentials who you can earmark for succession planning. These individuals will form the core group of “Generals” or future generals who have the Learning Agility to seamlessly embrace and lead within the future business. They are a rare and hugely valuable “critical mass” that will be crucial in bridging the gap between here and there. Once again, it is important to stress that your magic makers can, and should, be objectively identified through robust assessment so that this important step is not left to chance.

6. Align organisational processes to support the journey

As you make your way along the leadership journey it is crucial to align your processes and systems to ensure that the future state is embedded deeply and permanently within the architecture of the business. Performance KPIs should be heavily weighted towards the new competencies so that everyone is clear that the business is serious about investing in the future. Compensation and benefit structures (any variable pay, bonuses and incentives) have to be reviewed to bed down the new leadership imperative. Talent strategies, hiring practices, retention strategies, succession planning, promotion policies, training and development strategies all have to be reviewed to ensure focused alignment. In short – commit to the journey and be all-in.

And finally…

Great leadership is a moving target. What was considered great 100 years ago is certainly not entirely relevant today. Admittedly, some leadership qualities are more enduring than others, but we have to constantly measure, assess and evaluate leadership and how it manifests within the real, everyday business environments we encounter in order for it to drive value. The ability to map the journey, measure the means and energise momentum may result in the army of 1000 under the leadership of the competent General not only winning the battle, but ultimately conquering the world.

By: Brandon Gillham


Southdowns Ridge Office Park, Centurion, Gauteng, South Africa