I spent the past month interviewing leaders to help them get even better and have a greater impact. These were not your ordinary leadership interviews; I did what is called a "leadership experience interview".
During each interview, the leaders began by walking me through their leadership career, specifically sharing how they learnt to lead. In anticipation of each new role, I asked them to share how their organisation prepared them for it. I say "was asked to share" versus "shared" because none of them could actually share an example. Their companies did not provide any proactive leadership development.
Then I asked: "What did you learn about leading from each role?" The answers coalesced around what they learnt from observation or created through their own experience.
In the final part of the interview, I read 24 leadership actions with the leader answering "how" he learnt to do each. This is when it hit me that many, if not most, leaders practice what I call "copycat" leadership. Basically, they mimic what they observed good leaders doing and try to do the opposite of what their bad managers did.
They achieved senior leadership roles with very little focused development. It made me question what the risks of not having a structured approach to leader growth are. Organisations would be much more profitable if they invested in building their leaders rather than relying on the risks of the copycat approach.
Let me put this approach in perspective. I've had a lot of haircuts in my life; after a quick calculation I would say at least 300 in my adult life. Needless to say, I have seen my fair share of haircuts, especially since the barbershop usually has a few others taking place at the same time. Given my exposure and confidence that I can copy them, do you want me to cut your hair?
In many ways becoming a leader is like becoming a doctor. There is a theoretical underpinning, ways, methods and tactics that are important to learn. But you really only learn to become a doctor with the patient. So, with the accurate knowledge in place, the doctor is set free to practice - but not alone. He is under the supervision of a teaching physician and follows a structured approach until he is competent to practise alone.
Unfortunately many leaders have missed the classroom part and being guided by a teaching physician. Can you imagine a doctor doing the same? I would not go to him, nor would I want to be led by someone who learnt by unguided observation and trial and error experience.
It is important to note that most of the interviewees have an MBA and many attended prestigious executive education programmes. But when queried about how this contributed to their learning to grow, they commented "not at all". It focused mainly on the technical aspects.
Herein lies the risk and concern; technical accomplishment is not the same as leadership competence. But it is often mistaken as the path for development as a leader. It should go without saying that leaders should have the technical competence to be able to do the job. Once moving in the managerial ranks, however, this needs to be complemented and ultimately supplemented with leadership competence.
Do yourself, your team and company a favour, invest in a structured approach to growing as a leader to make sure that your past success does not limit your future by leaving parts of leadership covered up.
Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, an adviser and the author of The CEO Shift. He is the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center