What leadership then looks like now: Resourcefulness

So the challenge we’re considering: how could a mission organization identify potential C-suite leaders 15 years before it needs them?

I covered the first part of the challenge in my previous post. The second challenge is to figure out what competencies to look for, and what the early version of those competencies might look like. How do you spot this kind of talent? The mission leader who proposed this challenge had a theory that you look for evidence of megacompetencies. These are broad competencies that are themselves a collection of competencies. He believes that makes it easier to watch for and cultivate early indicators. 

I want to propose three over my next three posts.

1. Resourcefulness

In the book, Topgrading, Brad Smart explores the ruthless leadership theory deployed by Jack Welch at GE: grade your executives each year and cut the bottom performers. I am not a fan of that ultra-competitive approach, and Simon Sinek offers a blistering critique of such finite thinking in The Infinite Game. However, I find Smart’s exploration of the competencies of “A players” to be helpful. Number one on his list:

Resourcefulness refers to your ability to passionately figure things out, like how to surmount barriers… It is a composite of many [competencies]: Intelligence, Analysis Skills, Creativity, Pragmatism, Risk Taking, Initiative, Organization/Planning, Independence, Adaptability, Change Leadership, Energy, Passion, and Tenacity.

So, if you need resourceful leaders in the future, how do you spot these competencies now? They can be seen in the way kids play, in the way students juggle competing responsibilities, in the way young leaders approach challenges. As a matter of fact, resourcefulness can show up very early in life. For instance, consider Rex Davis. While his mother was showering, this 2-year-old grabbed the car keys, left their locked motel room, got into the car and started it up. Unfortunately for him, it was a manual transmission car parked in first gear, so when Rex started the car without stepping on the clutch, the car lurched forward—through the front wall and into the motel room. While police were investigating the accident, this “precocious” 2-year-old found the keys again and climbed back into the car. I suspect Rex Davis will be one to watch for the future.

But here’s the rub: early demonstrations of resourcefulness may look to managers like disobedience; not accepting a firm “no” and making an end run around the bureaucracy. Some of these unskilled expressions will be intensely frustrating to a manager who simply needs the job done. In those cases, it’s up to the senior leader to intervene and create appropriate expressions for those characteristics.

Megacompetency Series

What gets you there won’t get you here

11 years ago, the president of a mission networking organization approached me with an interesting challenge: He wanted to help the network’s member organizations develop candidates for the C-suite* 15 years from now. But how do you help mission agencies recognize high-level leadership traits early?

Now, if you’ve read What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, you know that many of the leadership skills and aptitudes that get you noticed or even help you succeed at lower levels of leadership are not the same as those needed for senior-level leadership. In fact, some of them might actually block your promotion path. So, if that’s the case, the converse might also be true: what gets you there might not get you here. What if the competencies that might make someone an excellent CEO, Senior VP or VP are actually skills that won’t advance your career early on? What if they’re not even appreciated at the lower levels in an organization?

What does a young person do with skills, interests or abilities that are not encouraged, or perhaps even suppressed? Some might hide those dreams, those desires for bigger picture thinking, those challenging questions. Others attempt to nip them in the bud, attempting to stifle the development of “negative traits.” In other cases, those traits become major sources of frustration—for the individual or for his or her boss.

Thankfully, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln emerged successfully from their early failures, losses and frustrations.

In other words, the ladder to high level leadership may not actually pass through typical lower levels of leadership. What if, instead of suppressing certain competencies, we drew them out and developed them independently of a young person’s current role, simply to prepare a future leader for the future? The working theory of the mission leader who approached me was that future C-suite leaders cannot be developed within the organization; in order to develop skills for a generalist leadership role, they need to participate in a cohort with others like them outside their organizations.

Think about your organization. Are you likely to encourage and develop C-suite kind of thinking and behaviour when it has no immediate benefit to the organization or the role that person currently fills? Do you provide outlets for these kinds of leaders? What could you do to ensure that their frustration doesn’t boil over and some other organization ends up benefitting from their leadership 15 years down the road?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before you can develop skills for the C-suite, you have to recognize those high-potential individuals in the first place. In my next post, we’ll look at the second part of this challenge: what do the early roots of C-suite leadership look like?

*The C-suite refers to all the “Chief” roles: Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief HR Officer, etc.

Megacompetency Series

Evidence of the Spirit

I’ve been thinking about search processes and succession planning recently—not because I’m thinking about a change, but because I’ve been asked to give feedback about some candidates for a position. I want to dust off some thoughts I posted in 2015, which I’m repackaging here as a new blog post:

In Numbers 27:15-23, Moses had the audacity to tell God what He should look for in his successor:

Then Moses said to the Lord, “O Lord, you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Please appoint a new man as leader for the community. Give them someone who will guide them wherever they go and will lead them into battle, so the community of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

Look at that list of requirements: a male, a guide, a general, and a shepherd. Where did Moses come up with this list? Is he simply trying to clone himself? Certainly, the wilderness needed a guide and a shepherd. While the historian Josephus tells us Moses had been a general in Egypt, he never takes direct control in any of Israel’s battles. At the same time, Moses is likely looking ahead and considering the next phase for Israel: as it moves into the Promised Land, it will certainly require a military leader as well as a guide and shepherd.

In contrast, what was God’s requirement for leadership?

The Lord replied, “Take Joshua son of Nun, who has the Spirit in him, and lay your hands on him.” (v18)

This doesn’t mean that Joshua didn’t measure up to Moses’ requirements. But God wasn’t looking at the man’s resume; he was looking for evidence of His Spirit. Joshua showed evidence in his past, and it becomes his primary hallmark of leadership after his commissioning:

Now Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him, doing just as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Deuteronomy 34:9)

Let’s apply these ideas to ourselves. If you’re a candidate for a position, think for a minute about your successes. How many of them really happened because of your amazing ability? Or does your biography read more like Joseph’s? Potiphar… the prison warden… even Pharaoh himself didn’t need to pay attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, “because the Lord was with him. And whatever he did, the Lord made it succeed.” (Genesis 39:2-6; 39:21-23)

Are you self-aware enough to look at yourself with sober judgement and not take credit for God’s handiwork? Have you taken time to reflect and see God’s hand reaching into and through your life to bring about His purposes?

If you’re on a search committee or interviewing for a position, how do you include in your processes a test for evidence of the Spirit? If character is bad, if the Spirit is not evident, or the person hasn’t reflected on whether his/her success might have come from God, then to develop his leadership abilities is to enable him. In the future, you will see someone who abuses power, position and people.

In short, without God’s Spirit, all you get is competence. Is that all you want? Is that enough?

Youthful seniority

William Pitt the Younger details the life of “a penniless twenty-three-year-old with no previous experience in office” who was elected to England’s House of Commons in 1782. Within 18 months, he was prime minister. It’s a story that captured my interest since seeing a rendition of it in the movie Amazing Grace. At one point, author William Hague — a current member of parliament — asks a question I want to consider as well:

How was it that opinion in the eighteenth century would accept youthful seniority to an extent inconceivable two centuries later?

Was it really very different back then? He notes that 100 members of parliament in the early 1780s were under age thirty. 100 under thirty?!! It wasn’t just in politics. “The number of young prodigies in many disparate fields was far greater than it is today.” For example:

  • Alexander Pope wrote his first verses aged twelve, and was famous at twenty-three;
  • Henry Fielding’s plays were being performed in London when he was twenty-one;
  • Adam Smith was a Professor of Logic at twenty-eight;
  • the evangelist George Whitefield was preaching to crowds of tens of thousands in London when aged twenty-five;
  • Isaac Newton had commenced his revolutionary advances in science in the previous century at the age of twenty-five;
  • and Mozart had composed symphonies when eight years old and completed tours of Europe at the ripe old age of fifteen.

I guess we could point to Mark Zuckerberg and other internet pioneers, or Hewlett, Packard, Dell, Gates and Jobs in the generation before. But there seems to be more resistance to young leaders today, especially in established fields, businesses, organizations… or politics. The fact is that in most cases where a young leaders reaches high position, it’s because he or she founded the company.

Hague wonders aloud what was unique in that culture that so much was accomplished by people so young. Why did they get so much greater opportunity and empowerment? He explores a number of ideas, including the influence of aristocracy in bestowing “instant credibility.” Perhaps the most obvious example was a group of twentysomething monarchs in Europe, but it extended to people like William and Thomas Pitt building on their father’s name and reknown. It wasn’t just privilege; it was also early exposure. William Pitt the Younger gained incredible oratory skills at the feet of his prime minister father.

Those were important factors, but I think Hague nails it in his conclusion:

Perhaps the greater risk of early death produced an impulse of young brilliance, and certainly the intensive use of private tutors added to it.

To put it in today’s terms, the two greatest factors were urgency and mentoring. We no longer fear death before age 40. To require a young person to put in time in a job before taking leadership is a luxury they didn’t enjoy back then. On the other side of the coin, young people felt like they had only a few good years to contribute, so they gave it their all very quickly. Pitt was an extreme case, much of his brevity self-imposed. His physician concluded that he “died of old age at forty-six as much as if he had been ninety.”

Pitt’s private tutor was a man who would become a prominent minister in the Church of England. His father was prime minister. These mentors shaped a young man who dreamed of parliament as his next step, straight out of college.

My question today is this: Is there room in your organization for young leaders? In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page challenges how leaders are selected.

The typical pattern for moving people into leadership positions must be changed. First, nice people who are good at what they do are thrust or promoted into a position of leadership, without regard for their ability, or sometimes even their desire, to perform in a leadership capacity. Secondly, they are evaluated on their ability to produce short-term results for the organization and finally, if at all, on their ability to lead people. Yet this ability to lead others is the long-term basis on which those results can be sustained or improved upon.

If leadership gifting, competence and calling are all clear at an early age, why aren’t more organizations willing to allow young people to work in their sweet spots rather than promoting good practicioners with seniority? Experience in a field is simply not the same as leadership gifting. So, do we feel an urgency to find the best leaders available, to pour into them and to give them space? Until we do, we’re not going to gain the benefits of this generation’s William Pitts, Adam Smiths and George Whitefields.

The ladder for generalists

In our Threshing Floor lunchtime discussion a year or so ago, one of our senior vice presidents mentioned that there is no ladder for general administration. The fact is that the skills required for administration are not the same skills required for lower-level leadership or line management. Therefore what would make a person successful as an administrator wouldn’t necessarily make her successful at any point in earlier life. In fact, it might hinder her success. And someone who is very successful at a lower level might be extremely unqualified for executive leadership. It’s simply a different skillset.

We’re talking about the opposite of the Peter principle here. It’s not about promoting someone to their highest level of incompetence. It’s not about turning a talented practicioner into a manager. In fact, talented practicioners might best be used where they are. Imagine that!

So, when Michelle Braden asks if a young person demonstrates early-stage strategic thinking, I want to ask what that looks like.

  • I think in some ways, it might come across as boredom. Or daydreaming.
  • It might be the annoying propensity to not stick to a task.
  • Or a tendency to scope creep — to do things outside their jurisdiction.
  • It might be a hunger to know the background or the bigger context for a task they’re asked to do.

All of those indicate early-stage strategic thinking… and might make one very unsuccessful in a job that doesn’t require that skillset.

Because the only ladders are within departments, great generalists and executives can be typecast, stuck within a particular role and unable to break free. If they only have one variety of experience, they could very well be limited. Jeff Shaara’s Civil War novels talk about an extremely talented quartermaster in the Mexican American War who was adept at getting supplies where they needed to be. Wikipedia says that his desire to lead troops was so strong that he continually found ways to get to the front lines. After the war, he was an abysmal failure at a number of ventures. It wasn’t until the Civil War, when he finally got an opportunity to command troops, that he showed extraordinary brilliance, earning the nickname “Unconditional Surrender.” To his final battle, he included in his military strategy a strong recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of supply chains. He soon caught the eye of his commander-in-chief. U.S. Grant’s promotion to lieutenant genaral was likely the greatest leadership decision Lincoln ever made. My question is this: what if Grant had been left in charge of supplies? Or what if his civilian failures had ended his career?

We’ll save a future blog post for the fact that Grant was a fantastic general who made a terrible president.

To get back to my point, how do we find these diamonds in the rough? How do we spot strategic thinking in a position that doesn’t necessarily require it?

  • How do we test emerging leaders to see if that little glimmer is really full-blown, high-carat strategic thinking?
  • And are we willing to take the risks when we see it to move someone into a position that plays to that strength, even if their resume might not include all the rungs to the top?
  • Are we willing to recommend cross-departmental transfers to broaden a rising star’s experience outside their one area of expertise?
  • Are there spaces in general administration to bring in raw talents in intern, interim or assistant roles to develop them at the 50,000 foot level?

I think Wycliffe USA has some pretty good first steps in place, but there’s plenty of room to improve.