Leading Leaders

Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish. —Sam Walton

In military culture, the role of subordinate leaders as potential primary leaders is well understood.  In combat operations it is a regular occurrence for the primary leader to be killed or severely wounded and leave the battlefield.  When that happens the second in command steps in and the unit carries on with the mission.  Succession in combat is premised on the condition that leaders at all levels have been trained to succeed at the next level up, or even two or three levels up.  And under the worst conditions; in the chaos and intensity of war, with lives in the balance.

It works well and there are lessons for the business world in leader development and employee relationships.  Military units build subordinate leader capabilities before it's needed in wartime.  They "share leadership", empowering subordinates beyond their routine duties, expanding their responsibilities, stretching the boundaries of comfort and daily practices.  Sharing leadership, giving it away, is a powerful tool that:

  • Empowers employees; the feeling of being trusted is a motivator like no other. "Wow, they put me in charge, I can't wait to get to work on this, I need to put my best foot forward."
  • Challenges employee assumptions and misperceptions about the organization and its leaders.  Builds empathy among the workforce for the organization and its leaders. "Hey, this isn't as easy as I thought it was, now I understand why the Boss gets stressed when these issues come up."
  • Expands employee horizons and imaginations. "I finally get to show the Boss this great idea I've been trying to tell her about for months, this will be amazing!"
  • Helps connect provisional leaders more fully to their subordinates.  It pushes leadership down more than one level.  "I really count on my team to make this happen, I need to make sure they are fully invested in the project, keep them motivated and informed, show my appreciation and help them along the way."
  • Assists leaders in identifying employees with the highest potential for bigger and better things. "She did a fantastic job with that difficult project, really knows her stuff and knows how to lead people."
  • Tells leaders how their employees treat their own subordinates, an essential indicator of character and leadership.  "I had no idea that he treated his people that way, it is totally unacceptable in this company."
  • Builds leadership empathy for the challenges and problems that provisional leaders face in executing projects that stretch employees and organizations.  "Interesting reaction from her peers when she tried to get their help with this, it could have gone much better.  I suspect that lateral cooperation is not what I thought is was at any time.  This project really showed it."

Leaders who do this will reap many rewards, these are just some.  It has to be done the right way; all involved have to understand the project, the authorities temporarily imparted to the provisional leader, the support expected, the communications required to keep all informed, and the limits and duration of the effort.  But that's not difficult to do.

There are few things better than sharing leadership to open horizons and to see how an organization really works.

No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it. —Andrew Carnegie

Many thanks, Keith Stalder, #25

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