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Professional Development
August 30, 2016

Self-Replicating Leadership

Founder & Chief Executive Officer

There’s a trope going around on LinkedIn that piqued my interest recently. I can’t tell its origins so if anyone knows I’d love to have the attribution. It’s a cartoon of three people standing on top of a mountain, one at the peak, and the other two trailing just behind. The caption reads “You’re not a leader until you have created a leader who can create another leader.”

It’s a kitschy turn of phrase, but I think it aptly wraps up several profound truths about leadership. And, I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. How does someone become this kind of self-replicating leader?

Though I don’t believe I’ve achieved it yet myself, I find it an incredibly motivating goal. Perhaps it’s only something that can be best observed in hindsight. But, I have a few ideas on how to get there, and a couple of lessons that I have learned along the way.

Leadership Can Be Learned

There is a lot of talk about the personality traits and temperament that natural leaders demonstrate. I do think there are some people who may be predisposed learning leadership skills. However, the key is that they are predisposed to the learning, not the leadership skills themselves.

I believe that leadership is a set of behaviors coupled with an intentional attitude, rather than merely a set of instincts. Being a leader is a lot like being a musician in this way. You may have instinctively good pitch perception, or internal sensitivity to tempo, but you still have to learn the fundamentals. To excel you must practice diligently, frequently, and forever.

An education in leadership is a similar lifelong pursuit and one must draw from many sources of knowledge to advance. As a leader, you must help your up-and-coming leaders find and utilize the right resources: executive coaching, mentorship opportunities, reading and study, coursework, and feedback from peers. Be constantly on the lookout for chances to pass on a bit of knowledge from your own experiences as well.

Humility is Key

If there is one trait that I think great leaders have in common, it’s humility. By this I don’t mean that leaders can’t be confident, in fact, quite the opposite. I think confidence (without hubris) is an undeniable necessity of strong leadership.

No, what I’m talking about here is the humility that comes from the realization that you are just a link in the leadership chain. There are leaders who have pulled you up, and leaders you are helping along. It’s the humility that compels you to lead from behind. It’s the humility that leads by enabling the strengths of others, rather than needing to demonstrate your own acumen.

Teaching humility is tough. Some people really do have this natural ability, while others will struggle with it their whole lives. In my experience, the only way to teach humility is through publicly demonstrating gratitude at every opportunity. In these instances you can thoughtfully chose who to praise, and for what situations to be thankful. And, you can tailor the audience who observes these moments of gratitude. This is a slow play, but over time your new leaders will begin to internalize their own level of graciousness and appreciation.

Mentorship is Essential

We all know that mentorship is an important part of our professional development. Most of us will be able to look back and name individuals who have helped us grow. As leaders, I think we need this component even more. I would almost go so far as to say that mentorship is essential to your development as a leader and without one (or many) your growth will suffer.

As a leader-creator we must be both providing and benefiting from mentorship; and I would challenge you not to become a mentor without having one yourself. Mentorship is always a two way street, and you must be part of the flow of ideas and guidance in all directions for it to really work.

When working with new leaders your mentor relationship doesn’t have to be explicit, though sometimes it may help. Here are a few ad-hoc mentorship techniques that I’ve used in the past:

  • One-on-one meetings, no agenda, just a quick coffee and walk around the block. These are great opportunities to get folks to open up about what they’re struggling with and to help by simply listening or sharing past experiences.
  • Pulling people into discussions that they normally wouldn’t attend. For example, inviting a senior engineer into a sales meeting. This gives them a chance to observe interactions, business concepts, and customer motivations that they wouldn’t normally experience.
  • Sharing books and articles (from your own reading) that are relevant to the situations the person is currently facing. It can help to keep a log of good things you’ve read so you can share when the opportunity arises.

The Proving Ground

Every leader goes through periods that test their resolve and the limits of their abilities. These can be turbulent and trying times. But, if we emerge on the other side we are often stronger, more grounded, and better prepared for future challenges. These proving grounds build our confidence, but also confirm our humility.

As leaders who are raising up others, we can help them navigate these “trials by fire”. We can delegate increasingly more complex and critical tasks, but in a way that provides a support structure. It is important in these moments to help new leaders observe themselves and the trade offs they are learning to make. Additionally, it is crucial to help them put failures in context, which allows them to learn and grow from the experience.

Let Them Leave the Nest

No two leaders approach a situation exactly alike. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of doing or saying something and immediately thinking, “Wow, I sounded exactly like my mother just then.” But, you’ve probably also had the experience and realized that you aren’t your mother, or father, but instead have your own style of teaching, and do things in a distinctly different way.

So, it is with the leaders that you have a hand in shaping. Sometimes you’ll see your imprint there, and other times you’ll wish you could see it. They won’t always do things just like you would, and that’s exactly the way it should be. New leaders need to grow through the fail-fix-learn cycle just as you did, and you have to be ok with that.

In my opinion, there is nothing more freeing as a leader than confidently delegating something. It can be a real challenge to our ego to allow things to be done in a differently and owned by someone else. But giving away responsibility is the only way to that someone else learns to be responsible.

I’ll leave you with one final thought from Peter Drucker:

“No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organised in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.” — Peter Drucker

Any organization that will survive beyond the usable life of its founders must be made up of self-replicating leaders.

Tandem is chicago custom software development company with practice areas in digital strategy, human-centered design, UI/UX, and web application and custom mobile development.

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