Helping Leaders Be Leaders

Helping Leaders Be Leaders

Earlier this week, a CEO asked me what, if anything, he could do to get the senior people in his organization to act like leaders. He wondered whether people who are not natural leaders can change their behavior and learn to be leaders.

The CEO’s question struck me because I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about leadership and what it takes to lead, but I had never tried to succinctly summarize how to help people step up to leadership. This newsletter provides an overview of my thoughts, although please remember that leadership is a complex topic and that this is not, by any means, an all-inclusive list.

Motivate Them

If you want to motivate your people to change, use both a carrot and a stick. In other words, be clear about your expectations, and then provide a reward for them to move towards and a punishment for them to move away from.

Both the reward and the punishment can take many forms, depending on the personality of the individual you are trying to motivate. For example, the reward might be a promotion, the opportunity to work on a project of particular interest to the person, more money, a better title, a nicer office, good travel opportunities, etc. It does not have to be huge, but should be something that is of value to the person you are trying to motivate. In other words, if you do not think that the person cares about status, then promising him a fancier title is unlikely to influence him.

The punishment should not be draconian but, again, should relate to something that is likely to motivate the individual. It can be that the person does not get a promotion, loses the opportunity to lead a new project, or is no longer the most senior person in his or her department.

Do Not Motivate Through Fear

I know I just finished saying that you often have to use a stick to motivate, but it should be a small stick – I’m not talking about using a mace here, people! This is key because leadership
involves taking risks and trying new things. And risks by definition are, shall we say, risky. If an emerging leader is scared to death of making a mistake because he will be fired, then he is not about to step up to the challenges of leadership.

Get Inside Their Heads

Often people do not step up and act like leaders because they are afraid and this fear can take many forms. Someone might be afraid of looking incompetent, or afraid of public speaking, or afraid that the technology has moved past their understanding, or worried that they don’t know how to handle conflict, or uncomfortable managing people. So if your senior people are competent, motivated, and intelligent people, and you believe they have the necessary skills to be strong leaders but they are not showing leadership, then step back and think about what each of them might be afraid of.

Give Necessary Support

It seems that the older people get, the more afraid they are of showing their lack of knowledge. It also seems that senior management is often complicit in pretending that people do not need to continuously grow and learn. For those of you with children, think about what your children’s schools ask of them and then think about what is asked of adults. When was the last time you took an exam or received a letter or number grade on anything? When was the last time you wrote something and got it back covered with corrections?

Now I am not suggesting that organizations start giving final exams to people. Believe me, I personally am grateful that those days are behind me. But organizations do themselves a great disservice when they pretend that everyone’s skill sets are up to speed and that learning is not challenging and hard at times.
For example, if you suspect that one of your people is not showing leadership because he is insecure about his expertise in an important new technology, don’t pretend otherwise. Instead, talk to him, share your observations, and give him the necessary education, time, and resources to learn what he needs to know.

To Summarize

Underlying all of this are two main ideas. First, if you want to get people to act like leaders you need to know them so you can motivate them and understand their concerns. Second, you need to create a safe environment where people can take risks and have the support that they need to grow.



In addition to management consulting, conflict resolution, and executive coaching, I offer tailored programs on a variety of related topics, including how to delegate, communicate more effectively, deal with difficult people, manage conflict in the workplace, manage up, facilitate meetings, manage your career, and network.

Please let me know if there are other topics in which you are interested. If I don’t already have a program on that topic, I am happy to develop one that meets your needs