Prepare to be a Leader? Why Bother?

You have heard the expression: “A born leader”. If it is true that some people are “born leaders,” they don’t need to bother preparing to be leaders, because they were gifted with this extraordinary talent at birth. What an incredible talent to be born with! However, the rest of us have a lot of preparation to do before we become strong leaders.

Most, if not all the managers and leaders that I’ve met during my 30+ years of business and leadership consulting experience spent a good part of their careers developing the many competencies required to be strong leaders. Unfortunately, the vast-majority of leaders learn these skills through trial and error, without any significant formal preparation to guide their development. The failure rate of this approach is high. If the practice of promoting top performing individual contributors into management positions with little to no preparation for leadership produces such poor results, why do companies continue to repeat the same mistakes over and over again? Some common responses:

  1. Leadership development costs too much.
  2. We have tried to train our leaders and the results have been poor.
  3. We have highly trained professionals (doctors, engineers, investment professionals) that are highly educated and have long track records of success.
  4. They are going to manage people just like themselves; with some experience and guidance, they will do just fine.
  5. We don’t have time to send our top people to development programs.


An imbalance has occurred in many businesses wherein technical skills have been assigned a disproportionately high value over people and leadership skills. Both types of skills are necessary for organizations to be successful. Insightful leaders recognize this imbalance and take steps to correct it.

Preparation is a critical part of successfully performing the most important tasks in our lives. From the time we are children to the time we are adults, we are taught that you must prepare or risk failure. For example:

  • When I was eight years old, I started playing the marching snare drum. I took music lessons and was persuaded to practice the drum every night.
  • I spent hours in a batting cage swinging at baseballs to make my little league team.
  • In High School, I sanded cars in an auto body shop to prepare them for painting. I was taught that the quality of the paint job was heavily dependent on the quality of the preparation.
  • We spend hours preparing for tests throughout our academic careers.
  • The only way I overcame my nervousness about public speaking was to over prepare by rehearsing the speeches over and over again.
  • A group of Air Force fighter pilots and astronauts that I worked with described their careers as over 90% preparation, with the smallest percentages of their time dedicated to flying and debriefing after missions.

If we know that preparation is critical for almost all difficult tasks in life, then why is preparation for becoming a leader substantially ignored by many organizations?

I will share a belief after working for great leaders and truly terrible leaders, leading people myself, and helping develop leaders: One of the greatest untapped potential competitive advantages that is readily available to most organizations today is the opportunity to develop strong leaders throughout the organization. Leaders who create an engaged, positive, open communication, and teamwork culture that produces top-tier business results.

After reviewing a lot of leadership research and observing many leaders, I’ve developed a theory that leaders fall into one of two categories:

  • Two thirds of leaders fall into the “just OK to horrible” manager category.
  • One third fall into the “good to fantastic” manager category.

These “just OK to horrible” managers dominate the corporate landscape and that is why employee engagement is low, turnover is so high, and many companies struggle to produce their desired business results. This does not have to be true. There are known fixes available.

There are proven ways to achieve this goal, but it takes the long-term commitment and persistence of an organization’s top leaders to realize the benefits over a period of years. It starts with a belief that developing strong leaders is a critical part of developing a successful work culture. And, that a successful work culture is the foundation required to effectively execute business strategy.

Consider the following ways that companies have been successful at developing leaders have achieved their goals:

  • Make a conscious long term and ongoing commitment to developing leaders.
  • Budget enough money every year to have a meaningful impact on leader development.
  • If “people are our greatest asset,” start acting like it. How much did you invest in your greatest asset this year?
  • Start at the top. Get the CEO a coach and leadership development advisor.
  • Have all the executive committee members who report to the CEO participate in a year-long leadership development program focused on their own development as leaders and identifies strategies for developing leaders below them in the organization.
  • Have all senior leaders receive 360 feedback on areas of focus to become better leaders.
  • Implement a thoughtful approach to “growing your own” future leaders by:
  • Identifying high-potential employees early in their careers.
  • Providing these future leaders with a mix of training and on-the-job experiences that progressively help them grow through mentorship, stretch assignments, formal training, and exposure to senior management.
  • Read leadership books. There are a lot of great leadership books and extraordinary leadership research. The problem is that most managers don’t read these books or take advantage of the research. Can you imagine not paying attention to the best research available on your industry? That’s what most managers do every day related to their leadership function.

I could go on and on. The opportunities to be more successful through improved leadership and organizational culture are staring you in the face. Reach out and grab them before the competition does.

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