Leaders: Get Off Your Butts

The people in your organization who are the best teachers of leadership are not the development staff or the outside consultants. While there is a vital role for trainers and consultants, I believe it is the leaders themselves who are in the best position to train the next generation of leaders. Too often they sit in musty budget meetings or downsizing briefings all day and never get the chance to actually pick up a marker and share their passion for leadership with their employees. What a tragedy! I believe they are abdicating their responsibility, not only to their organization, but to the broader society as well.

There are many exceptions to this observation, and these leaders should be honored for their giving spirit and their foresight. They have understood the opportunity and gotten off their butt to get out and teach rather than just perform the leadership function all day, every day, as if playing a Whack-a-mole game. I will mention just three notable exceptions here for brevity, but there should be hundreds of thousands of exceptions like this, because the simple logic is so compelling.

Jack Welch got the idea a couple decades ago and built his Leadership University at Croton on Hudson. Jack was known to say that the times he felt best about his job were when he was actually in the classroom (called The Pit) teaching the next generation of GE executives how to lead. He devoted much time and energy to this effort, and it paid off huge rewards not only for the corporation but also for a whole generation of outstanding leaders who were fortunate enough to participate at GE.

Ed Betof has written a book titled “Leaders as Teachers,” in which he describes the journey to this model of excellence in the Becton Dickinson Company, a manufacturer of medical supplies and syringes. Ed was the CLO of BD working under the direction of CEO Ed Ludwig, who understood the value of having the top brass actually doing the instruction instead of relying exclusively on training professionals. For a great video describing their program you can navigate to http://www.corpu.com/leadersasteachers/

Probably the most famous and long term practitioner of the notion of having executives roll up their sleeves is Warren Bennis, who has been teaching leadership for over 60 years. As a leader himself for much of that span, Warren spent a good chunk of his time actually facilitating classes on leadership. He is currently still teaching and probably will until he drops. He noted: “The single most important thing I’ve done at USC over the past 15 years is to co-create and co-teach a course on leadership with Steve Sample (the current President of USC).”

So, if you are a highly paid executive working crazy hours doing the business of business, I humbly suggest you get off your butt and walk down the hall to where they are conducting the leadership classes for your upcoming generations of executives. Roll up your sleeves, and start sharing your philosophy of leadership. The first thing that will happen is that you will shock the suspenders off everyone in the room. Second, you will begin to realize this is a key part of your function as a leader. Third, you will come to really enjoy this activity as the high point in your day or week. You will see the immense benefits and willingly carve out time on your calendar in the future. Finally, after doing this for a while, not only will the profitability of your organization be substantially improved, but the morale of your executives will be greatly enhanced.

5 Responses to Leaders: Get Off Your Butts

  1. Bob – – – I couldn’t agree more re: “leading” by example, by executives actually doing the teaching. As a small related anecdote:

    . . . Many years ago, our HR team was rolling out basic HR/management training to all managers in our division. One of the business unit heads felt the training was “beneath” him — he “complied” by attending but spent the entire day in the back of the room and (visible to all) openly reading the newspaper — clearly sending a message regarding his view of the value of this training.

    For years, I’ve always thought of this as a “black mark” against him, if you will. In reading your post, though, I’ve had to re-consider my views in this way: Maybe the “fault” was ours (in HR) for not inviting him to present a segment of the training. Including him in this way would have (I believe) drastically shifted his commitment and engagement with the training, and would have sent a dramatically different message to the attendees.

    Thanks so much. I know that it wasn’t exactly what you were writing about (it was low-level training that we were doing, not leadership development)– but this nevertheless has caused me to see the situation in a new light!

    • Bob Whipple says:

      Right you are, Michael. I had a similar experience while teaching leadership at a medium sized company in my area. When the CEO was allowed to jump in and out of the training room and multitask with his BlackBerry, he was sending a signal of support but not passion. So, I made sure to get him up in front of the room for some of his own philosophy, and the dynamic changed immediately. I did not have to insist, simply offered to give him the air time and he jumped at it. The training improved significantly after that.

  2. Mark Tellier says:

    Bob,
    I totally agree. Profitability could be attained so easily by doing the simple things. There are companies out there that exemplify leadership. However, these methods are rarely emulated. We have to ask ourselves why. A simple answer may be that leadership simply does not exist in some companies and status quo is deemed to be OK. Managers may not know the difference and continue on there merry way protecting their own existence. In the case of senior management, I believe that the situation is even worse. It seems hat there is an absolute communication break between CEO’s and their employees. The bottom line is that if the CEO does not care and is just there for his or her golden umbrella then the don’t care attitude just filters down. How unfortunate it is that there there are so few stand out companies that demonstrate true leadership. I find it disturbing that leadership needs to be taught to high level executives. It really leads me to believe that the lack of leadership is epidemic in that managers and the like, no matter what level, hire people who do not threaten their own existence.

  3. Bart Stevens says:

    ‘While there is a vital role for trainers and consultants’

    Nice save

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