The Case for Teaching Everyone to Lead

Saving leadership training for “star performers” can needlessly splinter your organization. Reward those aiming for the top, but don’t forget those who might not be.

Not everybody is meant to be a leader, or necessarily aspires to become one. Which is fine, but it can also create a divisive dynamic in an organization. “Rising stars” get identified and are supported during their climb up the ladder. Others, perceived as talented only in a particular role or lacking a particular ambition to lead, get left behind.

But for the health of the organization, it’s worth embracing the idea that everybody deserves leadership development.

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, scholars Navio Kwok and Winny Shen argue that creating a two-tier system of leaders and non-leaders tends to lead to broader workplace disparities. “Organizations with larger gaps between those who do and do not receive development can be susceptible to organizational disparity,” they write.

That disconnect exists in part, they argue, because the people who tend to be tapped for leadership roles are least in need of them. They’ve already been identified as “high performers,” after all. But that gives short shrift to the niche skills in your organization, and diminishes the idea that leadership is a cultural value, not a special prize only available to those deemed worthy.

Leadership is a cultural value, not a special prize only available to those deemed worthy.

In the article, Kwok and Shen puncture a few fallacies about how we think about leadership development. They point out that leadership skill isn’t just a product of individual ability, and that you shouldn’t assume that past performance will produce a future great leader. But the most powerful argument they make is that leadership training shouldn’t be limited to the “motivated” employees. They found in one study that “those who are generally less motivated to learn or intrinsically interested in leading experienced over twice as much growth in their leadership confidence than those who were most ‘developmentally ready.’”

No question, self-starters and natural leaders who are inherently motivated deserve training and encouragement. But many people who might be fine team leaders may simply never have received the same kind of encouragement or permission to lead. There’s no such thing as an unskilled worker at an association—everybody is capable of sharing something. You want your staff, members, and volunteers to have the capacity and confidence to share those skills within and across teams. 

It can be tricky to determine what this kind of professional development can look like. As my colleague Ernie Smith recently reported, one study showed that leadership training needs to be more than just delegating tasks—an approach that can make employees feel like they’re doing more work but not necessarily taking on more responsibility. And I recently wrote about how volunteer recruitment efforts need to do more than promise vague “leadership skills.” Or at least, not assuming that sitting on a committee, in itself, is going to provide real leadership skills.

So rather than being selective about who gets to level-up their leadership skills, Kwok and Shen write, organizations can be more selective about what kinds of training which employees receive. “For every single developmentally ready employee who’s chosen for a development program, include an employee with a developmental need.” That can help erase the two-tier system in an organization. And it can help everybody build up their confidence and ambition. Because, no, not every person is cut out to run an organization. But everybody can run something, and they should have an opportunity to find out just how to do it. 

(SurfUpVector/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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