Succession planning requires leaders to identify whom they trust and then develop them for future growth. For the 2020 “Future of the Workforce Global Executive Study and Research Report,” researchers from MIT and Deloitte surveyed and spoke to more than 3,900 executives, managers and analysts and determined the most effective approach to developing a leadership pipeline is to give employees more opportunity. In fact, of the people surveyed, 74% agreed that learning and development (L&D) is important to their organization’s strategies, but only 34% said they are happy with their organization’s investment in their development.

In the current COVID era, it is unclear what tomorrow will bring, much less what will happen in the coming months or years. Long-term leadership development programs are a good idea, but it is difficult to groom talent for possibilities that are not yet understood (or are not yet known to be impossible). What organizations can do is prepare future leaders for undefined challenges based on their potential to grow and their confidence in managing ambiguity.

An important step in leadership development involves next-level delegation. Many leaders are comfortable delegating tasks but hesitant to delegate authority. We must ask, “How can a leader know when someone is ready for the next steps without having a chance to perform?”

Powerful Stories, Resonant Impact

Popular movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and “1917” depict triumphant stories of leaders who entrust their ranks to deliver important messages in nearly impossible circumstances. In a way, these stories are takes on a tale that has been shared within the U.S. military for generations: the delivery of a “message to Garcia.”

“A Message to Garcia” was published in 1899. It applauds the independent actions and initiative of U.S. Army First Lieutenant Rowan, who carried an essential message from President William McKinley to the Cuban General Garcia during the Spanish-American War. This tale is considered a strong example of a follower’s independently carrying out a vague mission with few specifics and is a frequently-used model for followership, independent action and trust in leadership.

The real story, however, goes deeper. Lieutenant Rowan was supremely qualified for this task, with extensive experience in Cuba and with the Spanish language, as well as arduous surveying and intelligence work. Rather than a story of perfect followership, it is, instead, a story about leadership, exemplified by Kouzes and Posner’s five-factor leadership model for success (described in their book “The Leadership Challenge”). This leadership effectiveness model encourages leaders to:

    1. Challenge the process.
    2. Inspire a shared vision.
    3. Model the way.
    4. Enable others to act.
    5. Encourage the heart.

By entrusting Lieutenant Rowan with this task, his leaders embodied ideals to consider in this time of uncertainty. The people whom Rowan reported to ensured that he understood the importance of the message to Garcia, a critical component of the U.S. efforts in Cuba. They modeled the way by creating opportunity for Rowan to succeed, sharing their vision of success for the mission without creating tedious tests and detailing the minutiae of every step he would need to take. Lieutenant Rowan was simply identified as the best person for the job, the person to whom McKinley could delegate full task and process authority for completion.

When McKinley articulated the goal but not the means to accomplish it, Rowen was enabled with control of organizational planning and decision-making. The final element in the five-factor leadership model is to encourage the heart, a critical element in times of complexity and stress. After Rowan successfully delivered the message to Garcia, he was rewarded with a meaningful meeting with the President.

Aligning Potential With Opportunities

Emerging leaders are looking for opportunities within their own organization to grow and apply their skills, developing leadership expertise. Current times are confusing, trying and altogether unclear. Instead of trying to run leadership development programs like “business-as-usual,” organizations are finding that the best way to foster growth is to offer challenging opportunities. Recognizing stars and providing them with the resources to act gives them the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they’ve gathered. It also provides employees with the self-efficacy that is crucial to lead and manage in uncertain times, thereby enhancing leadership development.

We encourage COVID-era leaders to recognize the contributions their followers make to keep hope and determination alive. Support and recognition go hand in hand with physical and mental health for workers in times of great change. Celebrating accomplishments of varying degrees may not have been the norm pre-COVID, but it is essential to encourage future contributions and leadership growth. With this understanding, Kouzes and Posner’s exemplary model is a strong fit for our times. For high-potential leaders, fully empowering their ownership of projects and processes will be an investment in future organizational success.