It’s Time to Recognize the Unique Potential in Each Leader
If you want to get under my skin, just continue talking about people as commodities. We all have pet peeves, and this is one of mine. People probably mean well, but you hear it in the most innocent of ways:
“We need to develop and grow leaders, like our crops need to grow with constant cultivation.”
“Leaders are our most valuable assets, just as important as our raw materials costs on our profit and loss.”
Even references to “leveraging talent to optimize our operation” are more of the same.
Pet peeve aside, this sort of language couldn’t be more reductive to the millions of humans across the globe who play important roles like mother, father, daughter, son, uncle, aunt, brother, sister, friend, colleague, significant other, and the list goes on. People—we all—have hopes, dreams, times of challenge, times of loss, times of happiness, and ideas about how to create and innovate.
When’s the last time raw materials or crops had passion and engagement to offer the world, or your business?
I’m not exactly sure when this started to bother me, but for anyone who has interacted with me you can attest that it bugs me when people refer to humans as commodities.
Humans aren’t commodities.
Commodities are “things” that satisfy a human need. But what happens when we think about humans as commodities? We lose sight of the “human need” part—the very thing that makes us human—our desire to make a contribution and our desire to grow and learn virtually disappear.
Sure, it could be that these phrases are a bad analogy or a poorly used metaphor, but, consider that when we mix the two—humans and commodities—what does this reveal about our beliefs? It could mean we believe our employees are fungible, and maybe we start to devalue their contributions.
If we see people as fungible, we are more likely to make poorer decisions, ones that disrespect others, lead to disengagement, and ultimately affect our business results.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not overly sensitive. I’m a person who has followed the research, one who has seen the impact of well-meaning people in my own business—who come around a common vision and make extraordinary things happen. After all, humans were here long before the first corporation (see 1600s, England East India Trading Company, which didn’t turn out all the well for those they were trading with).
As a 20-year student of business and people, I have come to believe that when we focus on people, good things happen for business. My leadership philosophy is rooted in nurturing the potential in people, because I believe in what is uniquely human in each of us—finding ways to foster an environment where each leader can be their absolute best.
So, where does this leave us?
My fundamental belief is that leadership is personal.
It’s always about the “who” over the “what.” There are challenges unique to each leader as each leader has a different jumping-off point—meaning that each leader has a unique background, including their experiences, educational attainment, personal traits, family history, and so on. Consequently, each leader’s journey is personal, individual.
While each leader’s journey is personal or unique to who they are, it is undeniable that leaders do face common struggles—ones that are inherent to their level, role, or context of their organization. Through the process of taking on increasingly larger areas of responsibility, we have come to believe that the challenges leaders face are both unique and in common.
The capabilities required to deliver results as an individual contributor are quite different from those required of a leader who must deliver results through a team. So to the capabilities of a leader managing other leaders is invariably different than those of leaders managing a business unit or of the organization entirely.
It’s incredibly similar to building different muscle groups in the body. You can lift weights to build your biceps and be able to lift with your arms quite well, but that doesn’t mean you have done work on your leg or stomach muscles and may not be able to complete even a few squats or sit-ups. A leader must continue to call upon those things that have made them successful in previous roles and build new muscle groups or new capabilities required to lead in a new context.
As we look ahead, what are the implications to developing leaders in our organizations? The best organizations are creating programs and services that serve leaders both for what’s unique to each and to what they share in common. A blended approach to developing leaders is the result—an approach that provides unique or personalized coaching, mentoring, and experiential activities COMBINED with classroom content, group coaching, communities of practice, e-learning, and other resources targeted to meet the needs of what they share in common.
This is what makes developing leaders so challenging—each leadership challenge is both personal and shared by others. Our ability to meet these needs with both types of solutions; however, will radically improve our outcomes. Plus, this approach recognizes how inherently human and personal this leadership journey really is. So let’s get creative and find ways to move beyond the basics of fungible commodities and to recognizing the unique potential in each leader we have the privilege of working with.