I vividly remember one particular day in my 8th grade math class. I don’t remember what concept the teacher was teaching, and I don’t remember many of the details, but I remember the specific experience. The teacher was reviewing concepts from the previous night’s assignment, and called me up to the chalkboard to work out one of the problems. The next few moments were terrifying for me. I was so scared to stand in front of my classmates and demonstrate a math concept that my hands began to visibly shake as I walked to the front of the room, and then . . . I don’t remember anything else until I sat back down. What happened in between standing up and sitting down was and is a complete blank. I knew at that moment that I could never do something that would require me to be in front of people.
So, there is great irony (and providence) in the fact that my career has required extensive interaction with and in front of people. I would never have imagined that I would have had the opportunity and experience of leading organizations, speaking in front of people, and developing other leaders. When I think about this, I can see that there are several important factors that played a role in my development, but one of those was simply the opportunity to try. My church asked me to teach a class, an administrator gave me some responsibilities, a student group asked me to speak at an event, and a variety of other opportunities were provided that helped me to grow as a leader and helped me to develop skills.
You see, leadership development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It involves both knowledge and practice, both learning and doing. You learn a lot by studying, by having someone teach you, but you also learn a lot by doing. Therefore, a critical component of leadership development takes place when people are given the opportunity to try by getting the chance to do. That’s why John Kotter, when he speaks about creating a culture of leadership, says that “people who provide effective leadership in important jobs always have a chance, before they get into those jobs, to grow beyond the narrow base that characterized most managerial careers. . . . The breadth of knowledge developed in this way seems to be helpful in all aspects of leadership” (What Leaders Really Do, in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011), p. 53). This is why you need to take opportunities that are presented to you, even if it is a little outside of your comfort zone. You need to be willing to overcome your fears and stretch yourself, knowing that you won’t do everything well and you’ll make mistakes, but you will learn and improve.
While this is true for you, it’s also true for those you are leading. George, Sims, McLean, and Mayer, in a article discussing Authentic Leadership, explain that “authentic leaders . . . know the key to a successful organization is having empowered leader at all levels, including those who have no direct reports. They not only inspire those around them, they empower those individuals to step up and lead” (Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011), p. 176). You will be a much better leader if you intentionally look for opportunities for those you lead, opportunities for them to step up and take some leadership, to stretch themselves, and to grow their abilities. Perhaps it involves leading a project or a task; maybe it’s leading a discussion or study or meeting; it could be taking the lead on learning a new concept to share with others. It can be a variety of ways, but regardless of what path you use, be purposeful about providing growth experiences.
The simple truth is that growth and development takes place when you have the opportunity to try. Therefore it makes sense that you must be intentional about taking those opportunities, and it also makes sense that – if you want to be a leader who develops others and you want an organization with a culture of leadership development – you become intentional about giving others those opportunities. Take advantage of experiences that will help you grow, and give your followers a chance to try.