Do you have executives or leaders? Many founders and CEOs make the mistake of assuming achievement is the same as leadership. You can see it as clear as day in the progression of the senior team over time.
Stage 1: The founder. You are it, and if you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. Leadership is single-faceted: get the job done. Get the ball across the line.
Stage 2: The dynamic duo. You find a wingman. You dream it, and they do it. And the organization takes off. The essence of leadership starts to crystalize around one thing: the ability to get the job done. To get the ball across the line.
Stage 3: The enablement team. We never call it this, but the first “leadership” team is simply the group of people who enable you to do as much of what you want done as possible. When we talk about leadership, we use phrases like “bias to action” and promote the people who get stuff done.
Stage 4: The professionals. The following leadership team is in many ways an equal and opposite reaction to the previous team. As stage 3 comes to a close, we realize the caliber of individuals is lacking. We have a room full of doers who are either overly myopic (the VP of Sales who is better at selling than leading the sales team) or the jack of all trades who is yet to achieve mastery. We have a real business, and it needs real executives.
Stage 5: The executives. The next stage is where the true executive team comes into its own. The C-Suite emerges as those few leaders inside (or hired from outside) who can craft and execute the company-wide strategies and initiatives. These high-caliber, high-impact individuals know what needs accomplishing, and they know how to direct their teams to do it.
Stage 5 is often viewed as the epitome of leadership. When in fact, leadership in the true sense of the word is very much under threat.
Throughout every stage of “leadership development,” what we’ve actually fostered is “achievement development.” The organization’s hierarchy has grown and adapted to the functional needs of the growing and maturing organization. As a result, increasingly skilled and adept achievers are promoted or brought in to manage the increasingly complex demands within the organization.
If we aren’t careful, we can get caught up in the endless pursuit of achievement and lose true leadership in the process.
What do I mean by leadership?
Firstly, the best definition of leadership is that posited by Les McKeown in his book “Do Lead.”
“Leadership is helping any group of two or more people achieve their common goals.”
Now you may be thinking, “Wait? Right there, it says leadership is an achievement.” That’s what I thought leadership was for a very long time. But I want to draw your attention to an all-important but almost hidden phrase right there in the middle.
“Leadership is helping … people achieve their common goals.”
Do you see it now? True executives don’t lead by achieving their own goals; they lead by helping others in the organization achieve their shared goals.
And one of the most important and most underutilized tools for executives to help others achieve is mentoring and coaching. Unfortunately, even the best mentoring and coaching programs in truly legendary organizations can be sold short if the top executive team isn’t involved.
Contrary to popular belief, I think the primary function of the executives is not achieving today’s success (though that is absolutely necessary), but, instead, securing tomorrow’s success. The executive team is there to craft a multi-year strategic plan and develop the next generation of leaders that will outstrip the current team’s capacity for achievement and growth.
For this reason, senior executives must personally involve themselves in the mentoring, coaching, and training of future leaders. When they do, they are sure to experience these benefits.
- Greater buy-in from the rest of the organization. When the top brass says, it is important AND acts like it is important, the rest of the organization will recognize its importance.
- Greater fulfillment. It’s tiring to live your entire career for your own achievement. And I’m not just talking about the business world. Many nonprofit leaders I work with are just as focused on achieving their own personal mission, and if they’ve been at it long enough, they are just as tired. So much life comes from pouring into someone else’s mission.
- Greater leaders. Great leaders attract great leaders. By opening up access to senior leaders, you will attract and develop extraordinary leaders up and down the organization’s ranks.
The ultimate test of leadership
A clear litmus test for the level of leadership performed by your executive team is how much time they spend developing others, especially those who are not direct reports. The greater the leadership, the less time spent on achieving and the more time spent pouring into the achievement of the growing leaders within the organization.
I’ve quoted this Greek proverb before, but it bears repeating, especially in this context,
“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.“
When trees are you planting today for your organization to experience greatness long after you’re gone?