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The Challenge of Developing Great Leaders

I don’t know about you, but I have never figured out the difference between coaching and mentoring when talking about the development of leaders. I’m sure there is a difference – but whether you call it coaching or mentoring – I think developing great leaders is one of the most challenging tasks of a leader. In fact, I suspect that even if we work at it the rest of our days, we will still be looking to improve.

The guest post on my blog last week by Chip Bell proffered this wonderful perspective on “mentoring” the next generation leaders in our organizations. My favorite paragraph was “. . . mentors love learning, not teaching. They treasure sharing rather than showing off, giving rather than boasting. Great mentors are not only devoted fans of their protégés, they are loyal fans of the dream of what their protégés can become with their guidance.”

Wow. I want to be a leader who does that. Wonder if I’ll ever make it.

As I look back over my years in leadership, I’ve concluded that the hardest part about developing leaders is to make it about them – and not about you — to unlock the very best in their design, and not a mini-version of you.

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but reveal to him his own.” Benjamin Disraeli

As I think about how to best focus my attention on the development of others, here are three insights that I have found helpful to the process.

  1. Every person is uniquely designed – we are not the same.

 Maybe your mother told you that “no two snowflakes are the same.” She was right according to scientist, John Hallett, director of the Ice Physics Laboratory at the Desert Research Institute. Hallett says this: “[A snowflake’s] final shape is a history lesson of how the thing grew. The outside edge of the crystal is where it grew last, and as you go inward you can tell [the conditions of] where it was before.”

The same is true of the people I coach. Every leader is uniquely designed – and they are a function of where they have been working before.  To contribute to a person’s development, I must start with an understanding of their unique design and how they got to where they are today.

       2. Developing leaders is “soul” work, not office work.

Another mother-ism is “actions speak louder than words.” She was right on this one too.  As leaders, our actions are a better barometer of our values, beliefs and convictions, than the words we say. Our followers would be the first to tell us this truth. What they see in our daily actions is far more memorable, than any coaching or mentoring conversation.

Similarly, I’ve come to understand, that when things are not going well for a leader, it is because they have some underlying confusion about who they are and what they believe or value. That confused “soul” shows up at work and confuses everyone around them – until the leader reaches clarity about the convictions they want to be evident in their leadership. So to develop a great leader, I must ask them questions about their values, beliefs, and convictions. Not to judge them, but to provoke them to consider whether their actions are in sync with their words.

        3. The most powerful question to ask a developing leader: Are you becoming the leader you admire most?

Interestingly, every person that I ask this question can describe in great detail the leader that they admire most – their qualities, their values, and the impact they have had on lives. But when this question is turned on ourselves – are you becoming the leader you admire most – it always requires more reflection. It is such a high standard – such a noble ambition – yet, we all know how far short we fall of being that leader we admire on a daily basis. Myself included.

That is exactly why it is the right question for your leaders. What could be more challenging, more demanding, or more valuable to a developing leader, than developing a plan to become the leader they most admire?

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had any luck developing leaders who are mini—mes.  Not one. But I’ve come to understand that is exactly the point of my role in developing future leaders. It is not about me. It is about them – and bringing them to the best version of themselves. When I do that, I will have been a good mentor or coach or whatever we want to call those who are responsible for developing future leaders.

Serve well.

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