steve coats Fatal Flaws in Developing Leaders

Fatal Flaws in Developing Leaders

Many organizations have an honest desire to develop more and better leaders. Yet despite the noblest of intentions many, if not most, also fall short. While some individuals may show improvement, the collective effort either never takes hold or fizzles out after a relatively short time.


In our work at International Leadership Associates (ILA), we’ve come to identify four common flaws that most frequently derail these leadership development efforts. Although none will come as a complete surprise to many of our colleagues in the field, there are some key lessons we’ve learned. And as you read along, consider from your experience what the biggest culprits you have found that get in the way of leaders developing to their full potential.


Let’s begin with Fatal Flaw #1:  Managers, from senior level on down, simply fail to tell their people they expect them to lead. Few managers look each of their people directly in the eye and tell them, “I expect you to be a leader in this organization. It is a fundamental part of your job, which must be done well”. Instead, managers walk their people through annual performance metrics, usually stressing financial or quantifiable results—a component that can determine as much as 70% of an individual’s pay. There are typically a few other categories, e.g., self-development or community involvement, and then something about living the organization’s values (assuming there are some). Finally, there may be an add-on category about leadership development, frequently embedded somewhere in the self-development objectives. This, unfortunately, is how too many managers rationalize that they are, in fact, clarifying their expectations around leadership. But the communicated message is clear: make your numbers and, in your spare time, continue to improve yourself and work on becoming a better leader.


Compare that messaging from the ineffective manager with the leader who tells her people, “I expect you to deliver on the results we have agreed to, and I expect you to be a great leader for others throughout the entire organization.  It doesn’t matter how good your numbers are, by themselves. If you’re not providing the leadership this company needs you to provide, your pay and your opportunities for advancement will be severely limited. It’s that important!”


Everything is a high priority these days. And everyone is expected to meet ever-growing expectations. As a result, it’s more important than ever to be very clear about how important leadership is. Otherwise, those development efforts will inevitably slip between the cracks. So the question for leaders is this: Does everyone on your team view stepping forward as a leader a “must do”, or do they think it’s an option?


Fatal Flaw #2 is a bit seductive—giving the appearance that it’s been tended to when, in fact, it hasn’t. Assuming the expectation to lead is clearly made, there is a great deal of confusion about what it actually means. For those individuals who do become inspired and committed to improving their leadership, too often they discover they’re not quite sure what they are supposed to do, how they will know they are leading in the way the company desires. The reason? Because many organizations have not adopted a clear, concise, definable, model of leadership.


Despite what some organizational leaders seem to believe—that leadership is an esoteric, philosophical list of academic concepts—a well-grounded leadership model allows everyone, in any position throughout the organization, to know exactly what leadership looks like, what people do when they are leading, and how it differs from other activities.


Almost all companies with whom I’ve worked have developed a competency model, describing capabilities managers at various levels are expected to demonstrate in order to be deemed ‘effective’. While some competencies are more directly tied to leadership than others, they generally cover broad knowledge areas such as financial acumen, strategic agility, business savvy, and communications. But having a competency model in place is just a starting point. For example, being competent at people development and having a cross-boundary mindset will no doubt be tremendous assets to rising leaders. However, those descriptors fail to explain what the leader must be doing on a day-to-day basis to fully develop these competencies. And for all of us at ILA, that’s where The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® model has helped to take our clients to the next level of leadership development. With its evidenced-based research and its immediate, hands-on applicability, the model is like an instruction manual for creating higher performing teams, increasing employee engagement, and inspiring people to do their very best work – all key outcomes of leadership.


Fatal Flaw #3 is a lack of context—context that establishes the importance for leadership, explaining why it’s a crucial expectation. Unfortunately, context is often assumed to be known by everyone in the organization when it’s not. And with constantly changing circumstances, it must be reinforced time and time again.


One ILA client organization has done a remarkable job emphasizing the importance of leadership. Like many, they suffered financially during the 2008 downturn. But they weathered the storm and learned an invaluable lesson: in order for them to be a great company—especially in our constantly chaotic, unmanageable world—they would need to have great leaders in every department, at every level of the business. This meant developing leaders, regardless of title or position, who were willing and able to tackle tough problems, proactively respond to uncontrollable changes, and develop innovative solutions or breakthroughs ideas. They now view leadership development as a key strategy that will help ensure continued prosperity and future success. And as a result, when people hear that they are expected to be leaders, they understand why it’s so important and why the company is making such an effort to develop more leaders.


Without an established context, you’ll likely hear people refer to leadership development efforts as “the flavor of the day,” or just another self-promoting initiative from someone at the top. If that’s the case, I encourage you to continue to help your aspiring leaders communicate effectively the context of leadership, to help their people understand the business problem that leadership development is addressing and why it is a necessity for the organization going forward.


Fatal Flaw #4 - the last of the culprits impeding leadership development efforts is the most obvious—and the one receiving the most attention. It is the lack of ongoing follow-through. To ensure that people grow and develop as effective leaders, there must be an intentional, purposeful, and sustained effort that is a key organizational strategy. It has to be more than an annual self-development objective to read a book or attend a workshop on the subject. It has to be something for which people are held accountable every single day.


Many organizations have invested heavily in systems and processes designed to keep people constantly focused on financial or project performance objectives. Formal meetings or casual drop-ins throughout the day focus on project status and problems, new opportunities to increase sales, or innovative steps to overcome obstacles. Plenty of reports also help keep key performance indicators and goals on everyone’s radar.  In retail organizations, the first morning email for many managers is a spreadsheet featuring the previous day’s results and comps for the same period a year ago.


The good news is that when it comes to financial or project performance, people don’t need to tie a string around their finger to remember to do this kind of work. It’s embedded in their DNA. But can the same be said about the focus on leadership? For example, the movement of prospects and opportunities through what some sales-driven companies call the “sales funnel” is a topic of daily conversation. Yet, the movement of up and coming leaders (or other key talent) through the development funnel might be discussed once or twice a year. 


Many of the best performers with whom I’ve worked still have to remind themselves to lead, because those behaviors have not yet become unconscious habits. So in much the same way organizations keep everyone mindful of the importance of financial and operational essentials, it is equally important to help everyone remain mindful of some of the most important aspects of leadership. In order that strategic leadership development efforts take hold, organizations must be thoughtful and intentional about the systems and support mechanisms needed to reinforce its value. Of course, individuals are still responsible for continuing to learn and practice more effective leadership behaviors. But organizational support is essential. Setting clear expectations about leadership, clearly defining it, establishing context, and providing ongoing support are the fundamentals for a successful organization-wide leadership development process.


Steve Coats, a Leadership Challenge® Workshop Certified Master, is a managing partner and co-owner of International Leadership Associates, a leadership development education and consulting firm. For 25 years, Steve has taught, coached, and consulted with executives and all levels of managers around the world in leadership development, team development, personal growth, change, and business strategy. Steve can be reached at


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