Leadership development: With neither cape nor tights

February 25, 2015 by Wally Bock

Leadership development in hope and myth

Leadership development is about preparing men and women to lead organizations both now and in the future. We’re not exactly sure what the future will be, so, by gosh, we’re going to equip future leaders with every possible skillset.

They will be masters of communication and crisis management. They will understand the deep mysteries of information technology and the nuances of leading across borders and cultures. They will be gurus of cost cutting and investor relations and fostering engagement. They will be paragons of virtue, exemplars of fair dealing, and loved by all.

Sounds amazing, but that’s what we hope our leadership development programs will produce. But they won’t. They can’t

Leadership development in reality

Most leaders wind up in positions where they simply don’t know how to do everything they need to do, so they have to learn quickly. In other words, they will be more like Anne Mulcahy than some kind of leadership superhero.

Mulcahy never planned to have the top job at Xerox. When she took over as President and COO in 2000, Xerox was in trouble in just about every way imaginable.

She didn’t know much about finance so she had people from Xerox tutor her so she could do the job she’d been selected for. She became CEO in 2001. Xerox was profitable (again) in 2003 and stayed profitable through her retirement as CEO six years later.

Anne Mulcahy’s lesson learned

In an interview with Adam Bryant, Mulcahy described what she looks for in executives. It’s not the kind of things you can plan for.

“I’m looking for how much breadth someone’s had, and their appetite for not just vertical career ladders but their appetite for what I call the horizontal experiences, where it wasn’t always just about a title or the next layer up. And there was this desire to learn new things, to kind of grab on to things that were maybe even somewhat nontraditional. Those kinds of experiences I think bode well for someone who’s going to be open and adaptive in this job environment.”

Wally Bock is a coach, a writer and President of Three Star Leadership.

Posted in Leadership Development

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