Do We Need More Leaders?

One Big Question with Lisa Steelman

Lisa SteelmanMaybe you have heard it. There is a shortage of leaders. The baby-boomer generation is retiring, and the younger generations are ill equipped to fill vacant leader positions. These reports imply that what companies need are a few superheroes to fill the top positions. However, we don’t need more leaders to fill top positions, what we DO need is more leadership throughout our organizations and within our communities.

Leadership is about behavior, regardless of a person’s title or where they fall in the company hierarchy. As organizations face new and unfamiliar challenges, success depends on increasing the frequency of leadership behavior from individuals and teams across the organization. So, instead of isolating a small group of superheroes, the challenge is to understand and unleash the largest source of leadership potential—the entire workforce of heroes.

Successful organizations do this by developing current employees rather than recruiting leaders from the outside. Companies can deploy a variety of approaches to increase the leadership skills of rising talent including proactive coaching and mentoring, seminars and skill development projects (aka “stretch” assignments). In fact, research shows that the most effective leadership development occurs from participating in challenging work assignments. Companies that are willing to absorb some risk by offering challenging on-the-job learning opportunities reap the benefits of leadership growth, employee engagement and retention of top performers.

Our research reveals some compelling numbers. We found that only 25 percent of respondents from over 200 organizations worldwide believe the overall quality of leadership in their organization is high. Leadership skills commonly identified as business critical by organizational leaders include retaining and developing talent, managing complexity, leading change, and having an entrepreneurial mind-set. In our research, we find that fewer than 50 percent of organizational members felt “very prepared” to address any of these challenges. Employees are not confident in their leadership skills. Even more compelling, women report significantly lower confidence in most leadership skills than do men.

Formal training and development programs start employees on the path to develop these skills, but on-the-job learning opportunities ultimately solidify and refine the skills. When combined with feedback, coaching and mentoring, on-the-job learning will activate and accelerate leadership potential in individuals and within teams. This will fill a company’s pipeline with “ready now” leaders.

The lessons are clear, successful organizations don’t hire a few superheroes to fill leadership positions, they unleash leadership heroes across their entire workforce through challenging job assignments coupled with feedback and coaching. We don’t need more leaders, we need more leadership!

Lisa A. Steelman is a professor of industrial/organizational psychology and senior associate dean in the College of Psychology & Liberal Arts. The college offers a master’s degree in organizational leadership. Her research interests include feedback processes, employee engagement and women’s leadership.

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