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4 Reality Checks of Developing Leaders You Won’t Learn in Business School

Executive Summary

The world could stand to have a few more good leaders. We’re taught that leadership is reserved to a few, but John Maxwell believes leadership is earned.

  • Maxwell puts the onus on current leaders, whom he tasks with learning how to develop leaders.
  • Leaders will never leave the development stage, if they are doing things right. Development is a lifelong journey, and one where both mentor and mentee grow.
  • Putting effort and time into developing leaders is worth it because leadership demand will never meet supply.

Everywhere you look, there is a leadership deficit. In countries all around the world, there are not enough good leaders. That is certainly true in the United States. I think Americans of every party would agree that there are not enough good leaders. The same is true at the state and local levels: we need more and better leaders. And in businesses, nonprofits, and families—there are not enough good leaders! The good news is that leaders can be developed, and everyone wins when leaders develop other good leaders. If you are a leader—at any level or in any capacity—your organization will benefit when you start developing leaders. And you can do that beginning today.

What You Need to Know About Developing Leaders 

It’s taken me decades to learn what I know about developing leaders. I’ve had my failures, as well as my successes. I’ve poured my life into people only to have them walk away or disqualify themselves. I’ve seen potential in people who couldn’t see it in themselves, and as a result, never grew to be who they could be. I’ve been disappointed and discouraged in the process. But I will never give up. There is no better investment than developing leaders.

As you take this leadership journey, there are some things you need to prepare yourself for:

  1. Developing Leaders is Going to be Difficult, but Worthwhile.

If you’ve ever led people in any capacity, I think you’ll agree that leadership is hard work. There are no two consecutive easy days in the life of leaders. If today is easy, you know how tomorrow will probably go. But everything worthwhile is uphill. If the purpose of life was ease and comfort, no sensible person would ever take on the demands of leadership. Developing leaders is even harder. It’s like herding cats. That is why so many people who lead let themselves become comfortable attracting and leading followers instead of seeking out and developing leaders. Followers usually follow. Leaders, not so much. However, the work of investing your life in developing other leaders has a high return.

At age twenty-five, I discovered that everything rises and falls on leadership. I believed that truth with great certainty, and it propelled me to develop myself as a leader. Today my conviction is even greater, and it drives me to develop other leaders. That task is worthy of my best efforts, it adds the greatest value to others, and it gives me great joy. Developing leaders is the one activity that compounds a leader’s time, influence, energy, vision, culture, finances, and mission.

  1. Developing Leaders is a Job that Never Comes to an End.

When I realized the importance of leadership at age twenty-one, I began my intentional development as a leader. As I got started, I thought that at some point I would become a leadership expert. The more I know about leadership, the more I know that I don’t know. I am hungrier now to learn about leadership than I have ever been. If developing ourselves as leaders is a lifelong process, then we should also expect the development of others in leadership to be an ongoing process that never ends. Just as individuals never arrive, neither do organizations. In all my years helping organizations find, raise up, and develop leaders—and I’ve helped more than I can count—not once has a company spokesperson said, “Don’t help us. We have too many good leaders.” There is always a leadership shortage.

  1. Developing Leaders is the Best Way to Grow Any Organization.

A company cannot grow throughout until its leaders grow within. I am often amazed at the amount of money and energy organizations spend on activities that will not produce growth. They pour money into marketing, yet they don’t train their employees in how to treat customers when they show up. You can say customers are your priority, but they know the difference between good service and hollow promises. Slick advertising and catchy slogans will never overcome incompetent leadership. Or they reorganize, hoping that shuffling people around or renaming departments will produce growth. That doesn’t work. The strength of any organization is a direct result of the strength of its leaders. Weak leaders equal weak organizations. Strong leaders equal strong organizations. Leadership makes the determination. If you want to grow or strengthen your organization or department, start by developing those closest to you, because they will determine the level of success your team will achieve.

  1. Developing Leaders is the Only Way to Create a Leadership Culture.

In the past decade, people have begun to realize the importance of culture in their organizations. Culture impacts every aspect of how organizations function. A negative culture creates a terrible environment. It’s like a fire that spreads, creating destruction. As a leader, you get the culture you create, and the nature of the culture affects what you can or cannot do in your organization. If you want to develop leaders, it’s certainly easier to do when you have a leadership culture. And that kind of culture can only be created by the leaders within the organization.

Is it Worth Learning How to Develop Leaders?

My friend Zig Ziglar used to say, “Success is the maximum utilization of the ability that you have.” I love that definition, and I believe it applies to an individual. But for a leader, success requires something more. Success for leaders can be defined as the maximum utilization of the abilities of those working with them. There’s only one way for a leader to help people maximize their abilities and reach their potential, and that’s to help them develop as leaders.

Excerpted with permission from The Leader's Greatest Return by John Maxwell, copyright John Maxwell.

Bring It Home

When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked for a small marketing agency owned by a successful businessperson. This place had it all. A ping pong table in the backroom, an office aesthetic that would make an interior decorator grin, and a strong social media presence with an ad budget most small firms only dream of having. There was just one problem: the leadership of the company was sorely lacking. The vision for the company changed every week. Turnover was high. And every team member was scared they might lose their job at any moment. It was an unstable workplace, and a real-life example of how a poor leadership culture can detract from even the most picture perfect of company appearances.

Examples like this shows the discontent that can manifest within an organization that doesn't teach its leaders how to develop leaders. In what ways has a lack of leadership impacted your employment or management experience? Join the conversation in the comments!

~ HarperCollins Leadership Essentials

John Maxwell author of the book  The Leader's Greatest Return

John Maxwell

John C. Maxwell is an internationally recognized leadership expert, speaker, coach, and author who has sold over 19 million books. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP and the John Maxwell Company, organizations that have trained more than 5 million leaders worldwide.

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