Business challenges can feel insurmountable: Perhaps it’s the urgency of building a diverse workforce to serve your rapidly changing customer base. Maybe you need more innovation to compete with the brash young start-ups disrupting your industry. Maybe your biggest challenge is sustaining your company’s awesome work environment in a period of rapid growth. Or maybe a recent merger has you struggling to align the norms of two wildly different cultures.
Whatever the gap between your big concerns and greatest aspirations, you’ll bridge it faster when you have more people ready and willing to exercise leadership.
Leadership Is an Activity
You’ll get more traction when you start thinking about leadership as an activity, not a position or authority. Leadership has nothing to do with role. It has everything to do with seeing and seizing moments to help a group move forward.
When more people in your company are equipped to lead, amazing things happen. When everyone leads, teams are productive — not just busy. People are purposeful, not just going through the motions. When everyone leads, it’s not up to the boss to ask all the right questions. People inspire one another to stay focused on what’s most important, and as a result, solutions to important challenges emerge.
In addition, when executives and managers empower others to lead, their own jobs get easier. When everyone else (the folks with little positional authority) starts leading, their work becomes more rewarding. In short, companies are more successful when everyone leads.
Encourage Acts of Leadership
Once you’ve embraced the counter-cultural notion that leadership is an activity, not a position, you’ll spot acts of leadership in surprising places: A new employee shares an idea to make the company more welcoming; a salesperson offers a hard-to-hear perspective; a project manager gets curious about what two highly competitive teams can accomplish together.
If you’re a manager and see someone step out of their comfort zone to move a challenge forward, encourage them. Affirm the impulse. Talk about how it connects to what’s most important for your company. If an intervention fails, have their back. Encourage everyone to prioritize building leadership skills.
7 Questions to Assess Leadership Capacity
Hire and promote people throughout your company who embrace the principle that leadership is an activity, not a position. Use these seven questions to assess individuals’ capacity to engage in the activity of leadership.
- Can the candidate tell the difference between a complex, adaptive challenge requiring leadership from the many (not the few) and a technical problem requiring specific expertise or authority?
Technical problems are straightforward. You’ve seen them before. They require the right expert and good process management. Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, require leadership. There is no clear solution. In an interview process or annual review, ask people to describe a time when they used existing knowledge to solve a problem. Then ask for a story of a time they navigated an issue that was more complex. You’ll know someone has capacity to exercise leadership if they approach the complex challenge by engaging others, rather than working solo or applying a quick fix.
- Is this person able to make multiple interpretations?
It’s easy to list “critical thinking skills” on a job description, but it’s harder to determine what they look like on the job. Try bringing a case study example into the interview. Describe a change initiative that required people across your organization to adapt and learn. Pick a situation that involved competing values and different possible paths to success. Invite the candidate to imagine the challenge from the point-of-view of three different factions (for instance, those of new employees who are still finding their place in the company, jaded veterans and high-potential individuals who are eager to move up). Or, ask them to explain why different departments and levels (marketing, manufacturing, or the front-line staff and the executive suite, for instance) might have conflicting perspectives on the challenge. Hire and promote people who can name values and potential losses from multiple points of view. Give extra points to those who anticipate systemic pressures that could serve as barriers to change.
- Does this person ask curious questions?
Most often, leadership starts with a question. You can’t energize people if you don’t know where they are stand. What do they care about? What do they value? What scares them? What will it take to inspire them to do something different? Build a team of people who ask powerful, open-ended questions and your company is halfway to achieving its boldest aspirations.
- Can the candidate handle discomfort?
Change generates heat: There will be moments of uncertainty. So you want employees who can navigate conflict for the sake of an important purpose. The more people in your company who can handle the heat, the sooner you’ll bridge the gap between where you are now and where you want to be. Hire and promote those who can manage themselves when the heat is high.
- Will this person act experimentally?
Leadership is an improvisational art. If your challenge is adaptive, there is no one way forward. Even your most experienced team members can’t precisely predict someone else’s reaction to change. To address your company’s biggest concerns and achieve your greatest aspirations, you need to experiment your way to success. The more people are experimenting, the better. You want people at all levels who have the courage and skill to see their sphere of influence, try something, learn and be ready to try again.
- Can they avoid the allure of the quick fix?
Be extra-aware of this when considering candidates for an executive position. The further along someone is in their career, the more they’ve been rewarded for their ability to solve problems quickly. A candidate for a chief diversity officer position, for instance, may arrive at their interview with a backpack full of best practices, policy templates and training programs. But all the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) knowledge in the world can’t guarantee they are the right person for the job. Your company culture is unique, and so are your DEI challenges. Leadership from the C-Suite requires a high level of humility. Yes, ask candidates what they know and what they’ve done. But listen closest when they speak about what they need to learn, whose ideas they are most curious about, and how they’ll engage people who think differently about the challenges ahead.
- Does this person seek coaching and support?
Leadership is risky. It is an experimental, improvisational art. Everyone needs support to see and navigate the perils. Those who are most effective at tackling tough problems have formal or informal coaches. This may be a mentor, supervisor, professional coach, supportive peer, spouse or friend. A great interview question is, “Who is someone you go to for support when challenged at work, and what is most valuable about that relationship?”
Leadership Can Be Learned
When you start seeing leadership as an activity, rather than a position, you realize that leadership can be learned. Don’t fall into the trap of saving your investment in leadership development for the few. Develop the many! Teach them the art of asking powerful questions. Develop their conflict mediation skills. Provide opportunities to practice designing smart experiments.
Give your people the skills they need to see — and seize — their moments to lead.