Why do so many young leaders get it wrong?

dreamstime_xs_49438553Over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to coach a lot of emerging leaders. During those interactions, I have worked with my clients on foundational concepts (what do they want to accomplish, how do they want to be perceived, etc.), then moving on to techniques (personal interactions, delegation, scope management, etc.)  I am proud to say  that many of those clients have bloomed into excellent leaders (and I like to believe that I played a small part in that success.)

During all these interactions, though, I couldn’t help but notice that new leaders all seem to go through the same series of difficulties.  Specifically, they seem to mistake becoming a leader for getting authority, so they begin doing things that I would better classify as managing or directing. In other words, they do not inspire people to act by sharing a compelling vision; instead they yell at people to do things without explanation.  The results are less than stellar.

I think each of us can step back and look at that situation and see that it isn’t leadership (and we all know it is ultimately not going to be effective).  We can each probably name our favorite leadership book or video or seminar that talks about the best practices of leadership; but have you ever asked yourself, “Where on earth do these concepts come from?  Why are they all starting from the same wrong place?”  

Well, I have a theory on that.

As social creatures, we learn from those around us long before we begin learning from books and school.  Our first “leaders” (and hence our original role models in leadership) were our parents. Now, I don’t know about you and your household, but I don’t remember my parents trying to inspire me to clean my room with a common vision of a better world.  Nope.  Their motivation was much more … shall we say, visceral.  They said “jump,” and I said “how high” (or I was grounded, no pun intended.) They established the rules, and they established incentives for adhering to the rules (it wasn’t all negative, I did get an allowance for doing my chores).  This was an effective way to run a household, but was it leadership?  

Our first experience outside of our home is usually school.  Our teachers are the next role models in leadership; but just like at home, the teacher (or the principal) establishes the rules, and we are given positive and negative incentives to adhere to those rules.  We learn our lessons, and our classroom operates efficiently, but is this leadership?  This kind of experience may even be repeated when we go to our first job, reinforcing the idea that this is how an organization should be run.

Is it any wonder that new leaders have difficulty?  Is it a surprise that they think that leadership is making all the decisions and then telling everyone what to do?  Where are the role models for inspiring action?  For servant leadership?  When do we teach that it is better to take more time, involve people and build consensus than to expeditiously do it ourselves or through threat of punishment?  

I’m not trying to say that parents and teachers do things all wrong.  I’ve filled both roles, and I’ve used some of those same techniques.  What I AM saying is that those are management role models, not leadership role models. The first techniques we learn are management techniques. Our first experiences in organizations are management experiences. Management is not bad, but it isn’t leadership.  Being managed doesn’t feel remotely as good as being led.

So if we want new leaders to do better in their first leadership roles, then we have to teach them when to use their management skills, and when to demonstrate leadership.  We  have to seek out (or point out) positive leadership experiences earlier and more often; and we have to challenge those emerging leaders to develop a leadership approach instead of falling back on the familiar management techniques we learned when we were young.

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