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Leadership Can’t Be Mimicked

It’s not the shadows cast by leaders that impart wisdom and lend direction. Leadership in its original form matters most.

Seventeenth-century Italian artists produced representations of light and dark, without regard for color, called “chiaroscuro.” In simple terms, those artists created chiaroscuro images by drawing only shadows of a scene or an object.

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That is an apt metaphor for how we often think about developing leaders. We are critical of the executives we know, defining leadership by what they don’t do or the skills they don’t appear to possess. We develop leadership models from antonyms of what we observe.

It’s no wonder then, when asked to paint the light, we revert to selecting examples. We define leadership by pointing to leaders. Then, having given into the “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it” principle, it’s an easy slide to the conclusion that leaders are born and not made.

A recent Conference Board study reported: “Most corporations can be considered novices in leadership development.” It concluded that there are no breakthroughs in the field. Everybody is trying the same things: developing competencies, coaching, presenting topical programs, and the like.

I think leaders can be developed. It’s being done every day. Those who are most successful apply the same tools and techniques that everyone else does but in ways that support the company-specific role of the leader. They focus on what works best for their culture and strategy.

They know what they want.

Here’s the model I think fits my current organization and is liked by others: Leadership is being the player-coach of a virtual team in constant flux.

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Player-coach: Leaders at all levels need to have significant functional and technical depth — to be informed and involved at a tactical level and to produce deliverables personally. In short, they must be in the game. At the same time, they are expected to set direction and expectations and to manage the performance of their team.

Virtual team: It is common for leaders to have to influence people and organizations that they do not directly control. Those are, however, now the majority of the resources that are critical to their success.

Constant flux: Traditional models of leadership assume some stability in the team that is managed. They also presume that leaders can spend a reasonable amount of time with their teams. That’s not true anymore. Through growth, reassignments, reorganizations, and job changes, a huge part of any organization is always new.

So leaders must apply competencies in unique ways. To succeed as a player-coach of a virtual team in constant flux, they must:

Know the game:

  • Grasp the fundamental business model
  • Understand the key leverage points
  • Understand the specific requirements for their area

Be great players:

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  • Have strong functional and technical skills
  • Command a current and detailed grasp of their specialty
  • Possess outstanding tactical agility

Be great at coaching:

  • Have an excellent and highly flexible game plan
  • Be able to coach “on the fly”
  • Be able to maintain the capabilities of the team

There are tools, training, coaching, and other performance support mechanisms that can and do develop such skills. But you have to know what you want.

When we find ourselves thinking that leadership cannot be taught, it’s because we are only painting the shadows.

John Coné ([CONE_EMAIL]) joined Dell in 1995 as vice president of education and president of Dell University. In that role, he has been responsible for the education of all Dell employees worldwide.

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