July 18, 2012

We Are All Emerging Leaders

How would our personal and professional development efforts change if we viewed everyone as an emerging leader? This is the question I’ve been thinking about recently as I have seen more organizations establishing emerging leaders programs, and I've been invited to help design them or speak during one of their sessions.

Though any additional commitment to lifelong learning is generally a good thing, I’m wondering how the categories and containers we are creating for our programming efforts might enhance or impede our ultimate objectives. Emerging leaders and future leaders efforts are usually targeted at individuals who meet any of the following criteria: (1) are young in age; (2) have minimal experience (usually a few years) in the given profession or organization; or (3) hold more entry-level or intermediate positions within an organization’s hierarchy.

This all seems to make sense … catch promising stars at an early stage of development and then accelerate it with a significant professional leadership conference. But what comes after you’ve been pegged as an emerging leader? After attending the retreat or conference, what might we now call you … Arrived Leader? Fully Emerged Leader?

What happens all too often in organizations is that graduates of these significant experiences are left to their own devices until they meet any of the following criteria: (1) are older in age; (2) have significant experience (usually 7-10 years) in the given profession or organization; or (3) hold more significant positions within an organization’s hierarchy. At this stage we classify them as Senior Professionals or Executive Professionals and again offer them some specialized education.

What occurs (or doesn’t occur) between these two time periods concerns me because we don’t offer enough challenge and support to help individuals continue their path of lifelong learning and development. You’re either coming on to the scene or a scene senior. That’s not going to cut it if we expect to retain top talent and fully engage their wisdom, creativity, and insights for the good of organizations and the stakeholders they serve.

Emerging leaders is really an unfortunate misnomer when applied as described above. In reality emergence is an ongoing state of personal and professional development. It’s “cradle to grave,” an expression I recently heard a colleague use. The critical issue is not what type of leader you’ve become, but what type of leader you are becoming.

We simply must break free of the episodic notion of leadership development all too common in most professions and organizations. Organizations need to embrace a more expansive view of leadership development, chart multiple cradle to grave pathways for their profession that are inclusive and flexible, help individuals assess their developmental needs at any given point on the pathways they have chosen, and then connect them to appropriate learning experiences and opportunities.

Let’s hope such a leadership development philosophy more fully emerges in the years ahead, and let all of us do what we can to ensure that it does.


David Gammel said...


I always found the 'emerging leader' label rather irritating even though it did open up development opportunities that I benefited from. And when the label creates a box with high walls as you describe, it's not going to do have really long term impact.

But we are all ultimately responsible for our own growth and development. Labels shouldn't slow us down, no matter how condescending they may feel or be. You want to lead? Go lead, within our without the official structure of your organization.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

So true David. I think we need to help people explore what becomes possible when they assume more responsibility for their own development and paths. Some of my friends who work with recent college grads perceive that those folks are a bit less prepared to do than might be true than a decade ago.