Strengthen Your Leadership Bench Before It’s Too Late

December 1, 2014 | Bill Catlette | HCI
Share This

In recent discussions with classes of undergrad business school students, I posed the question, “How many of you aspire to a professional leadership role in business, government, or other organization?” In each case, 100% of the students answered in the affirmative. I didn’t say so at the time, but two divergent thoughts were crossing my mind, pretty much simultaneously:


1. In view of the fact that we’re surrounded by quite a bit of gross leadership failure at the moment, I’m delighted that so many young people have not been turned off to the duty of leading, and ergo the restocking program is under way.

2. Some of them, actually a lot of them need to put their hands back down.

It’s the latter point that this piece deals with. We often hear that leadership skills can be taught, and thus anyone can learn to lead and do it competently. Umm… Yes, and No, in that order. Leadership skills and habits, some of them at least, can be taught. But some of the critical components of being a good leader cannot be readily learned, if they can be learned at all. In other words, not everyone is cut out to be a good leader. There, it’s out.

People can learn to make better decisions, to communicate (even listen) more effectively, to better manage their time and priorities, to select and coach talent, and to organize others to get the daily wash out. But I’ve yet to see an effective method to teach someone to be willing to regularly subordinate their self interest, to be authentic, or to have the courage to do some of the things that leaders are expected to do. And, let’s not forget about the whole matter of character.

Having written the seminal work on the transformative power of a focused, fired up, capably led workforce, and studied the nexus between engaged and disengaged workers, I have come to believe that the whole employee engagement thing pretty well comes down to a simple, three word exhortation first put to me by a Northwest Airlines pilot in explaining his reasons for being on strike - It’s leadership, stupid!

With respected engagement surveys lending regular credence to the notion that in the workspace, more of us are disengaged than engaged, we should turn our attention less to programmatic fixes, and focus instead on finding and keeping better leaders. Most of our workforce, for some time now, has been over-managed, and under-led, and if left alone, the situation will only worsen, hastened by the increasing reliance on “big data” to manage our people and processes. (I am in no way opposed to increasing use of data-driven decisions, but I am unalterably opposed to the notion that data trumps leadership.)

Following are three things that most of us can do to strengthen our leadership bench:

That Dog Won’t Hunt

Take steps to ensure that those who lack leadership skills or attributes don’t have their lives, and in turn the lives of those around them screwed up by being thrust into a leadership role just because they’re smart, or “next in line.” Just don’t do it. Don’t kid yourself into believing that he or she is just a little rough around the edges, and we (you or I) can coach them to be less self-absorbed, or to have a more reliable moral compass. No, we can’t.

In similar fashion, be frank, brutally so if need be, with those who clearly don’t measure up, and there is no clear, likely path to remediation. As a sophomore biology major at “the U”, I had an advisor and a professor care enough to sit me down and point out that if I was flunking basic chemistry (twice, no less), becoming the next Jacques Cousteau was pretty much out of the picture. They will adapt, as I did, and in the unlikely event that they somehow go on to prove you wrong, you can both live with it.

Leadership Qualities Are a Must Have

Make the definitive presence of good leadership behaviors a “must have” factor for anyone (repeat, anyone) put in a leadership role or path. Test for those factors in the interviewing and vetting processes. If they come up short, it doesn’t matter how smart they are, or how good their other job skills are. Keep looking.

You Get What You Expect, Measure, and Reward

Be very careful in designing incentive and recognition programs, and other performance measures, to ensure that you don’t inadvertently reward bad behavior. Programs or goals that entice people to cheat, cut corners, or lose focus on core values will only guarantee more of that behavior in the future.

Finally, when you come across a leader who really gets it, is getting good results and doing it the right way, do everything in your power to make them a hero. Aside from being fun for the both of you, it goes a long way to making sure you get more of it.


Bill Catlette is an executive coach who helps business leaders connect the dots between People… Passion… Performance… and Profit. Reach out to him online at or @ContentedCows.