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The Risky Business of Leadership Development

Business success today demands careful attention to risk management. Contingency plans, redundant systems, business continuity insurance, and countless other vehicles protect organizations from the volatility and unpredictability of today’s business landscape.

But there’s one area where risk should actually be cultivated rather than averted, and it’s the on-the-job growth, learning and development of leaders.

By definition, developing a leadership capability, skill or experience set means throwing someone into the unknown to do what he or she has not mastered or perhaps even attempted before. There are no guarantees of success when a leader is given an opportunity to develop on the job. But, it’s precisely through these sorts of challenges that humans in general—and leaders in particular—learn most quickly and powerfully.

My ongoing research with senior leaders in 25+ organizations across the U.S. paints a compelling yet simple picture of the most effective leadership development strategy. When asked how their own managers or mentors helped them to grow the most, the number one response from executives is some permutation of “they took a risk on me,” with more than 90% of those polled citing this as a pivotal development experience.

These executives talk about being thrown in “beyond their depth,” left to “figure it out themselves,” and forced to “sink or swim.” Many of these stories have happy endings, with the leader emerging from this trial by fire successful and triumphant. More often, the stories involve mistakes, setbacks, and even high-profile failure. Yet, these more challenging endings invariably launch additional stories of trust, hard conversations, candid feedback, and support.

The executives who navigated their risky development assignments successfully learned a lot; those who encountered challenges likely learned more. And in both cases, their managers or mentors took a risk.

“Sure bets” and “stretch” simply don’t go hand-in-hand. So, if it’s a “stretch” that’s required to build genuine leadership capacity, how can an organization develop its bench without putting the entire enterprise at risk? Effective developers of leaders demonstrate some best practices that strike the balance. They:

  • Calculate the risks. The most effective developers have the capacity to judge a prospective leader’s capacity. They weigh past results, efforts and challenges and can assess the readiness of the person for a new task. At the same time, they understand the organizational landscape sufficiently to evaluate the real costs associated with outcomes that might fall short of success.
  • Give others enough rope. Effective developers don’t give others so much rope that they’ll hang themselves. Instead they give just enough so that developing leaders can go out, explore, experiment, struggle if appropriate, and still be reigned in safely if necessary.
  • Consider their own political capital. Since even calculated risks are still risky, effective developers know how much cover they can provide—and how much flack they can absorb—if the learning experience turns out to yield less than desirable business results.
  • Make peace with mistakes. The most profound developers of leaders have developed a visceral understanding that errors, miscalculations and failure fuel learning. They have cultivated a big picture perspective and appreciate that sometimes short-term sacrifices are necessary to build the long-term leadership capacity required for the enterprise’s sustenance and success.

Developing leaders is not for wimps. Done properly, learning can be messy. Development can be dicey. But it’s precisely through the act of taking risks on others that today’s leaders build tomorrow’s leaders—people who’ll be prepared and capable of carrying on the important work of the enterprise. And imagine the risk associated with not doing that.

“People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”
                                                                                                     — Peter Drucker

Image: (c) Can Stock Photo / nmcandre

4 comments on “The Risky Business of Leadership Development

  1. Jacqueline Ledgister-Bethell on

    Much food for thought, Julie. Thank you!!

    I would like to add another thought…

    Perhaps one of the dimensions of the “trial by fire” phenomenon that is not often discussed, is the impact of the developing leader on the people who report to him/her.

    As the developing leaders are journeying through unfamiliar territory and making mistakes, their followers are often traumatized by the jagged edges of their style. While some direct reports may overcome and survive, too often the organization is strewn with the “casualties” which the developing leaders have left behind. Maybe these are viewed as acceptable sacrifices. But if prolonged and not mitigated, this practice then becomes the accepted norm – the culture of the organization’s leader development programme. I believe this is a risk that must be carefully weighed.

    One way to manage this risk, is to be deliberate about firstly grounding the developing leaders with critical RELATIONSHIP skills ahead of other leader competencies. I am avoiding calling the Relationship skills – ‘soft skills’ :>) because there is nothing soft about the absence of say, civility and respect in a leader. (Just ask the departed UBER CEO…).

    • Julie Giulioni on

      You are so right, Jacqueline. And I really like your idea about prioritizing ‘relationship’ skills to mitigate some of the risk. (And I agree… the ‘soft’ skills are actually the hardest to master. I don’t know where that silly term came from!

      The other thing that would make a real difference is if a leader engaged his/her staff in his/her development. After all, who is in a better position to provide feedback, guidance and support around a leader’s development than those who report to him/her? Wouldn’t it be powerful if leaders proactively contracted with their staff, gaining their partnership in development? If that happened, employees wouldn’t be victims or casualties but rather co-creators of a genuine learning culture.

      Thanks – as always – for your insightful comments.


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