We're on a leader-building bandwagon. Companies are lining up to trade in the notion of the celebrity CEO and his all-star C-suite team for a grassroots approach that grows leaders deep within the org chart. By instilling leadership traits — integrity, creativity and initiative — among the troops, companies hope to build lasting organizations that thrive beyond any reigning chief.
A few months ago, I was invited to give a speech to a group of human-resources employees at a major investment bank. Unbeknownst to me, it had recently begun a similar leadership-development program that seeks to groom ranks of leaders far outside the executive suite.
Toward the end of my talk, I told the group that the core characteristics of leadership are self-assurance and authenticity. The best way to achieve those qualities, I said, isn't by developing what you lack but by amplifying the areas where you are most true to your best self.
Something about the stillness in the room made me pause and scan the audience. Every face in the crowd bore what I perceived to be an expression of enlightenment. Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but at least I thought what I was saying was ringing true.
During the Q&A session that followed, however, I quickly discovered that my analysis was in need of some fine-tuning. The first woman I called on told me about the firm's new initiative, and how it would measure people on a list of competencies and suggest they develop the ones they don't have. "I'm worried what you just told us doesn't really fit with our model," she said.
I quickly realized that the look on the faces of my audience hadn't been one of mutual understanding. What I had witnessed was a collective million-mile stare.
Their confusion is understandable. What I'd just told them flies in the face of how all those leader-building companies are going about developing their armies of leaders. While I applaud the intent, I have two problems with this trend. First, when we call so many people "leaders," the word ceases to have any meaning. Creativity, initiative, and integrity are valuable human qualities, not leadership qualities, and just because people have them does not mean they have followers. I believe leaders rally people to a better future that they can see when others cannot.
Second, and most important, when these leadership models give people a plan to round out their faults, they create patchwork leaders, each with varying degrees of skills precariously stitched together. At its best, this method teaches people that leadership is a multifaceted job. At its worst, it creates what I like to call a sort of Frankenleader, a pieced-together imitation of a true leader who has the potential to damage the organization that created him. When we are not doing what we're truly good at, after all, we're not living up to our greatest performance capabilities. And therefore, neither are our organizations.
In every company, there are leaders who employ their own styles and still get phenomenal results. I've interviewed a gruff, blunt chief marketing officer who lacked personality, but who is so straightforward and clear in her expectations that her team knows exactly where it stands and loves going to extremes to deliver the best results. I've spent time with another CMO who leads as though he were a stand-up comic delivering impromptu one-liners. He keeps his reports so entertained that they actually think their job is fun and execute projects without fail. Now imagine being in one of these leader-building programs and trying to pattern Ms. Gruff after Mr. Entertaining and achieve the same results. It's just not going to happen.
Standing in front of the employees at the bank, I thought about how to respond to what they'd told me. At first, I didn't know what to say. But then I thought about the F. Scott Fitzgerald line that says the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time and still be able to function. So although I couldn't advocate their approach, I told my audience that times of change are always confusing.
Then I repeated the only thing I felt I could say: Be authentic. To become a leader, identify where you are strongest and most confident, and then work to expand in those areas. If you want to be a better leader, don't try to be all things to all people — no one will believe you. You will lead best by following who you are.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.