Building Leadership with the Future in Mind

February 26, 2020
Author: Keith Walters

Keith Walters My father, who fought in World War II, once told me, “You find out who the real leaders are when the bullets start flying.” This stayed with me throughout my own leadership journey and helped me create methods to build great leadership teams. Now I have the privilege of helping organizations I advise cultivate and develop top-performing leaders.

In 100 years, another generation will think of the 2020s as a time of disruptive change due to rapid advances in technology and a reshaped world economy. It will be a time in history when people examined and redefined strategic leadership in both policy and practice.

Today, with generational shifts determining new work-life norms, the lack of talent to assume or ascend into leadership roles will hinder a company’s ability to grow. And without planning for leadership positions, an organization can lose its ability to scale.

Leadership development provides stability for a company's future.

Where to Start

Define “Leader”

Trying to find leaders before defining your needs is somewhat like trying to build a house prior to creating blueprints. Failure to do so usually ends up with undesirable results.

While the two are often combined and confused, leadership and management are two very distinct talents.

Management is a complex series of defined processes that help an organization predictably and consistently deliver to a target. It is a complex process, more so since its most complex set of variables are people.

Leadership is a behavior, not a process. It’s about having vision, getting people’s buy-in on decisions and ultimately, effecting change and transformation.

Organizations need to build a leadership pipeline.

Great leaders aren’t necessarily great managers and vice versa, and an organization needs to appreciate the difference. Either can learn the alternate skill and, if desired, practice it with intention. But it is rare that one person is skilled at both the process-driven role and the behavioral one.

Which is more important? Neither. The questions are, “What are the organizational needs at any given time?” And, “Which leadership style will work best in the company’s culture?” At some organizations, a servant leadership model may fit best. At others, a demanding, driving style might be optimal.

Beyond style, leadership “types” must be considered within the context of a company’s needs. Would a “pioneer” leader be best – typically a younger person with chutzpah, insight and leadership talents – but with less experience? Or will a “guide” leader – one with experience, who will know where the pitfalls will lie – be more appropriate?

It’s also critical to decide whether the company culture lends itself to promoting from within or hiring leaders from outside the organization. Choosing the latter can be transformational, in ways that are both good and bad. For instance, hiring from outside the company brings in new ideas, but it also might cause resentment and an “us versus them” mentality among existing employees who were passed over for advancement.

Ideally, management should be able to identify potential leaders in the organization and promote them. Managing promotions effectively is one of the most powerful ways leaders can drive their company’s success. Promoting internally is preferable because, according to many expert research publications, external new hires are 61 percent more likely to be fired than those who were promoted, and training newcomers can be costly. Many organizations may still struggle with this option, though, unless leadership has previously been defined and cultivated. Why? Because a company’s founding leaders typically grow staff by hiring “doers,” as opposed to employees who are wired by passion and talent to be leaders themselves.

While there’s nothing wrong with “doer” wiring, too many organizations fall prey to the Peter Principle of allowing employees to be promoted through the ranks to their level of incompetence. To avoid this, wisely put players into positions that use their talents to the max and not beyond.

Develop Leaders – Internally

Devising a leadership development program to effectively develop future leaders from within a company creates a purposeful mechanism to sustain growth and appropriate succession planning. If a company tends to hire individual performers – i.e., non-potential leaders – for main roles because of the nature of those roles, develop a plan to rotate potential leaders into the regular hiring mix.

Identify High-Potential leaders

Seek and assess leadership candidates with high emotional intelligence, adaptability, persuasion and strong communication skills. Leaders with these traits are thoughtful and authentic, keep commitments, are empathetic toward others, pivot quickly when necessary and can rally teams behind their vision.

Successful Integration

Integrating potential leaders into the lower-level hiring mix can be the genesis of a leadership development program that pays big dividends.

Building future leadership pipeline is vital to businesses.

Craft a Leadership Program Outline

  • Bring on at least one person to fit a future leadership role for every X number of employees hired.
  • Assign a mentor to each future leader.
  • Purposefully rotate future leaders through a series of positions with increased challenges and responsibilities. Evaluate which roles create the most interest.
  • Give future leaders “extracurricular” tasks, such as developing an employee program for community service program. Does their aptitude seem to be for tactical maneuvers, long-term strategy or both?
  • Strong performance in the first and each subsequent role should be expected. If expectations aren’t met, remove the person from the program.
  • Give individuals a chance to both succeed and fail, observing how each is handled.
  • Provide the future leader with a regular feedback cadence from existing leadership.
  • Assign required, continuous reading of leadership books with follow-up discussions.
  • Plan that not everyone in the program will turn out to be the leader you need.
  • Realize that others not targeted for the program may be leadership material; integrate them into the program once identified.

If a company’s leadership objectively evaluates the current pool of employees and still comes up short, seek new leadership from outside the organization.

Finding Leaders – Externally

Potential business leaders are everywhere in our society and can be found from many sources.

  • Military veterans, for example, make excellent employees and potential leaders. They know how to work hard, are accountable for their jobs and typically have a “mission-first” mentality.
  • Former athletes are also a good source of future leaders. These individuals are wired for competitive performance, work well with teams, thrive under pressure and know how to win after failure.
  • University-connected business incubators and accelerators are yet another good proving ground for tomorrow’s leaders. That’s because students participating in these programs are generally self-motivated, passionate about their projects and again, proficient at working well in teams. There are many of these incubators around the country.


Leading from the Future

The suggestion of “leading from the future” is a way to effectively create transformational strategy. Leadership cultivation and succession planning allows us to harness changes and disruptions and more rapidly adapt for organizational development and growth.

When we lead from the position of short and long-range possibilities and internal and external leadership development, we are incorporating the skill of adaptive, flexible and resilient leadership, which is critical to success.

Keith Walters is a member of ThinkWhy’s Executive Advisory Board and the managing principal of Walters Development Group, a business advisory firm focused on accelerating growth companies toward their vision and steering them toward strong cultural ideals.