In the words of William Shakespeare: “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” There are also plenty of people who should have greatness, but never get the opportunity to prove their worth.
When we talk about ‘leaders’ in organisations, we think of the bosses, the chief executives, managers and team leaders. We think of the ones with authority and titles. The truth is, everyone has the potential to be a leader, regardless of their official position.
Confusing rank with genuine leadership is a trap many of us fall into. Leaders are the ones who inspire others, take charge, craft their vision and get others to join them. These skills are neither restricted, nor automatically granted, to people with a certain job title.
However, leadership training – programmes which can help people learn and develop these skills – are often limited to a select few. There is, on the surface, a certain logic to this. You want leaders (and those on the path towards leadership) to have all the necessary skills, and there’s nothing wrong with this. But, that doesn’t mean they should be the only ones to get it. By only selecting a few key people for leadership training, you’re discounting all the hidden potential in your workforce.
What is leadership?
Organisations are defined and run according to their visions and goals. Without these clear indicators for the direction of travel, there’s really nothing to explain what anyone should be doing. The best leaders are the ones who internalise that vision, turn it into action, and bring others with them on that journey.
There’s an important distinction to make between people with authority and genuine leaders. Leaders are figureheads that you look to for guidance and advice; they’re the ones who show initiative; they lead by example as the first to step forward and inspire others to join them. The best leaders listen and work with the people around them to bring out their best. Crucially, none of this relies on formal positions of authority – and not everyone in authority possesses these skills.
While many want to climb the organisational ladder to attain formal leadership positions, there are plenty of others who have adopted informal leadership positions and qualities. You don’t need to chair a meeting to keep it on track or make helpful suggestions. You don’t need to be a manager to see where people are struggling or take action to solve problems. You don’t need a title to inspire others to do their best work.
And, of course, if the role job of a leader is to inspire others to follow a shared vision, then once everyone’s already following that vision, their job becomes much easier. Self-leadership is a fundamental talent which radically strengthens and streamlines an organisation. When everyone understands and buys into the shared vision and goals, managers and executives can devote their time and energy into bigger picture issues, rather than the mundane day-to-day.
By providing leadership training for more of your people, you aren’t necessarily creating more positions of authority, but you are developing informal leaders who can take initiative, inspire others, and recognise what they need to do to be a benefit to the organisation and the people they work with.
Don’t silence any voices
The problem with many in authority is their belief that they’re the only voice that really matters. You should never tolerate an environment where good ideas are silenced or where employees are taught to passively wait for leaders to make decisions for them. This feeds into the self-perpetuating over-confidence and over-reliance on formal leadership roles, making them feel and appear as more important than their ‘underlings.’
To combat this, the L&D and formal leadership teams should work together to identify the experts in their organisation. The issue is that everyone knows different things, making this very subjective and situational. Managers are often promoted for being good at their job, but being good doesn’t mean they’re the best – or, at least, certainly doesn’t mean they’re the best at every single element of the role. Make a note of the people that shine and when, even in very specific moments, and do your best to give them more opportunities to step up in the future.
In a culture where employees have become conditioned to defer to their managers on all things, giving them their own leadership skills, showing them the value of their (and everyone else’s) voice, and giving them the confidence to use it, makes a real difference to how an organisation runs.
Future proofing against skills gaps
L&D, and leadership training in general, are becoming more and more important for organisations. Almost half of L&D professionals in a global survey said that Leadership and Management training is their top learning priority this year. Additionally, 72% say that L&D has become a more strategic function at their organisation, with 62% saying their central focus is on rebuilding or reshaping the organisation in the wake of the pandemic and economic challenges.1 When this is all viewed together, it’s clear that leadership is viewed as a key strategy for the future.
Additionally, in 2020, the World Economic Forum published their predictions for the top ten skills workers will need by 2025. Of these ten, the majority of skills are those involved in leadership: analytical thinking and innovation top the chart, others include complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and initiative, leadership and social influencing.2
The majority of these come from, or are boosted by, leadership skills. For example, being an independent thinker can be much more impactful when you’re fully considering your organisation’s goals and processes. Understanding your place and the long-term objectives makes a huge difference to how you’re able to think, plan and deliver.
Retention vs Resignation
Over the last couple of years, up to half of US office workers, and many more around the world, have either left or are strongly considering leaving their jobs, in what’s been named “The Great Resignation.”3 While everyone has had their own reasons for leaving, it has created a vicious cycle where their former colleagues have been left to pick up the slack, increasing the pressure on them. Worryingly, 68% of workers say they no longer know what their full responsibilities entail.4
Universal leadership training is one way to get rid of this excess pressure. If people don’t understand their roles and their place in their organisation, their morale is going to be severely affected – not to mention their effectiveness. By creating pathways for more people to understand their organisation’s values, goals and structures, as well as their role within it, you’ll remove much of the uncertainty and doubt.
Along with stress and extra pressures caused by these mass resignations, organisations need to recognise the risks of burnout in leaders. In the UK, 61% of managers say they’ve suffered from burnout at work.5
When managers are put under excess stress, it trickles down into all parts of their team. By giving non-leaders leadership training, you can start taking the pressure off managers. Get your people stepping up, making the right decisions by themselves, and taking many of the micro-tasks away from your already busy managers.
Creating the right culture
An organisation’s ‘culture’ is hard to define, let alone control, but we know when we experience it. It’s people’s attitudes, the way executives and managers talk to people, the amount of pressure people are regularly put under and how they’re expected to deal with it. It’s the personality of the place, and it’s ultimately defined by what people do and are prepared to put up with.
Last year, workers said the top three drivers of work culture were: opportunities to learn and grow, belonging, and organisational values.6 These are all elements that leadership training covers, empowering each person to make the culture around them more welcoming, adhering closer to their own values. When people are given opportunities to take charge, further the organisational goals, and are treated with real respect, their sense of belonging grows.
It should also be noted that the three aforementioned cultural drivers rose up the ranks 8, 4 and 5 places respectively since 2019. This means that employees are expecting more from their organisation both in terms of learning opportunities and the culture they’re being asked to work in.
Levelling the playing field
Most organisations would probably define themselves as a meritocracy, where people who perform best are the ones to rise to the top. This is often used to explain who is and isn’t promoted or given leadership training.
At first, this seems perfectly reasonable. You wouldn’t want someone unqualified at the top of an organisation. However, it relies on the system being fair and equal for all employees. Unfortunately, it’s been shown to not be quite so even handed.
Last year, Microsoft was declared the Fortune 500 company with the best diversity and inclusion. And yet, only 26% of their managers are female.7 Furthermore, as of 2022 there are only six black CEOs of a Fortune 500 company – the highest it has ever been.8
While we’re not here to break down the societal factors which lead to these discrepancies and lack of diversity in leadership positions, it’s clear that the meritocracy argument cannot fully explain it. This is especially true when you consider that gender and racial diversity is often an indicator for success, with organisations with diverse leadership teams tending to outperform companies without.9
This is all to say that by making leadership training less exclusive, and providing your people with genuine opportunities to shine, you’ll start creating an environment where the best really can rise to the top.
Leadership isn’t a zero-sum game. Just because you raise up others, doesn’t mean you’re pushing anyone else down. No one’s position or authority is being threatened. If your current leaders feel like this, then you should remind them that by giving their team members stronger leadership abilities, you aren’t removing the need for managers, you’re making the managers’ lives easier so they can focus on bigger priorities. This can only lead to success for everyone throughout your organisation and create a culture where all voices are listened to and respected. Most importantly, with leadership comes vision, and with vision turned into action comes a much stronger and more focused organisation.
To find out more about our Leadership and Management training, and how it can help your people, take a look at our Learning Solutions.
1 LinkedIn Learning (2022) 2022 Workplace Learning Report: The Transformation of L&D
2 Wold Economic Forum (2020) The Future of Jobs Report 2020
3 The Washington Post (2021) The 'Great Resignation' goes global
4 UiPath (2022) New UiPath study reveals half of office workers willing to resign from their jobs as global labor shortage amplifies employee burnout
5 Benenden Health (2021) Fifth of UK managers consider quitting a Covid burnout strikes
6 Glint (2021) Employee well-being report
7 Fortune (2021) The top 20 Fortune 500 companies on diversity and inclusion
8 Fortune (2022) The number of black Fortune 500 CEOs returns to record high - meet the 6 chief executives
9 McKinsey (2020) Diversity wins: How inclusion matters