Accidental Leadership – Unbundling the App

For most leaders the process of becoming a leader is accidental. You start a career and build technical competence. If you are good at what you do there often comes a point when you get given responsibility for other people, which in theory at least, means you are now a leader. Though you may well be labelled as a manger and whether other people will really follow you, has yet to be determined. Leadership is a new skill that’s now expected, but it rarely comes with a user manual or a guide who shows you the ropes, so you are left to figure it out through trial and error.


Research conducted by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), and YouGov in 2023 in a nationwide study into the state of UK management and leadership[1] makes for depressing reading. The report shines a light on a crucial part of any equation to understand productivity in the economy.  The research found that 82% of managers who enter management positions have not had any formal management and leadership training and that poor quality and ineffective leadership frequently lead to disengaged employees, weak or toxic cultures, and an inability to access the talents and experience of employees who are far more likely to leave these kinds of organisation.


Technical competence in any domain of expertise is insufficient to make you a leader. You probably have the aptitude and character to become a highly effective leader but too many organisations will now leave this to chance with the hope and expectation that you will figure it out as you go along. Experience is an uncertain tutor, as Abraham Lincoln quipped, ‘the average man with 30-years of experience has 1-year of experience repeated 30 times.’ Given how crucial leadership is to team and organisational success, why leave it to chance or the hail Mary that perhaps in 5-15 years you will have figured it out?


My belief is that leadership is a skill. Like any skill, if you want to get better at it you must practice it in a way that helps you get better at it. This is challenging in the average work environment where the focus is all on the business you are engaged in. Plumbers focus on plumbing; traders trade and restauranteurs think about food. The people who glue all this activity together, how to support them, build teams and get the best out of them – all that stuff happens by accident, if it happens at all.


Lots of things can help to change this equation but here are two quick thoughts for now.  The right support at the right time matters and sooner is always better than later.  Support basically helps unbundle the app, to understand what leadership is, how it works and how to apply your character and skills to the task. That support should come from other leaders in the business. Yet in most organisations and certainly in my previous military career, leaders spend much of their time judging and evaluating their leaders, not developing them. Secondly, having a scaffold makes a tremendous difference when trying to build anything that needs support. The scaffold is there to provide an explicit framework of what leadership is, what leaders are, what they do and what good looks like. Expert consultancy can provide this.


The upside of such development often seems intangible, but good leadership gives any organisation a critical advantage. Previous research from the CMI has also shown that good investments in leadership development translate into an average 23% increase in organisational performance, and a 32% increase in engagement and productivity. Those are not marginal gains!


The truth is that no one factor makes a company admirable.  But if you were to pick the one that makes the most difference, you’d pick leadership.’ Warren Bennis



[1] Taking Responsibility – Why UK PLC Needs Better Managers

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