Leadership is not a position or title, it is action, choice, and example. Our behaviors may in fact result in leadership opportunity down the road, and while we have complete control over our behavior, opportunity is almost always in the hands of others. We can create opportunity for ourselves, but in all honesty we are merely giving reason for others to create opportunity for us. I am not saying that we can’t inform our destiny, but I am acknowledging that we are not in control of it. If we are to give others reason to invest in us, we need to ensure we are ready to seize the opportunity. Those of us who aspire to significant leadership roles, must be prepared to deliver when we get the call. We must make ourselves ready – we weren’t born leaders. Yes, I am a firm believer that leaders are made, not born. More specifically, leaders develop themselves. We develop ourselves through observation, mentorship, and experimentation.

Observation: We all can point to great leaders in our life. Likewise, many of us have observed bosses who were anything but leaders. These observations need not be made through first-hand experience, as books, movies, and talks are great ways of gaining exposure to leaders we will never meet. Whether experienced first or third-person, it is important that we pay careful attention to the world around us and truly observe how others lead so we can appropriately shape our toolkit. As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

Mentorship: While we can observe at a distance, personal mentorship makes the learning even more meaningful. Mentors can be people with whom we are in direct contact regularly and they may be people we never meet in person, and instead receive virtual coaching from. In fact, I have both mentors and protégés whom I have never met in person. It’s not about the proximity of our mentors, but the tailored advice they provide, as they guide us in our leadership journey. In fact, I have benefitted from turning authors of books I have read and TED Talks I have seen into personal mentors. It should come as no surprise that many of the leaders we see from afar stand ready for personal conversations and e-mail exchanges.

Experimentation: Undoubtedly the most most critical piece of our leadership development is that of experimentation. Experiential learning happens, just as life does. However, if we just let it happen, we miss opportunities to learn and truly live the life we claim to want. Leadership is about changing the order of things, it’s not about accepting the status quo. Leadership is about continual improvement and sustaining excellence once reached. It is impossible to do either without active experimentation, learning by doing, and sharing what is learned.

We learn by observing, we build on that learning through personalized mentorship, and we apply what we learn through continual experimentation. When we do all three, we are optimally prepared for the opportunity others may decide to create on our behalf. Some may take issue with the passive way I frame opportunity creation. Type A’s are masters of their domain – They are in control – They don’t need help – They create opportunity. I don’t believe we create opportunities, but we most certainly do seize them. There are occassions when leadership voids are created, allowing opportunities to lead just happen, and more often than we care to admit they happen for people who are not ready. At the same time, they don’t happen often enough for people who are truly ready. And that is where I see the greatest seam in our leadership development efforts: sponsorship. It is one thing to coach a protégé behind the scenes (mentor) and it is another to be a public advocate (sponsor) for them. Both are well worth the investment, but the latter makes far too many of us uncomfortable. Not me!

I spend a lot of time looking for talent. In fact, I am known to pick my protégés. And I am not afraid to advocate for the people I believe are most deserving. Many may think it is favoritism. It is, for I favor the passionate, the competent, and the team oriented self-starters. Some may think it’s a throwback to the Good Old Boy Culture. It would be if I didn’t sponsor people of all ranks, genders, and ethnicities. I prefer the Greatness Culture. Doing anything less than sponsoring our best leaves our future to chance. And with that approach, I don’t like our chances.

Leaders aren’t born, they are made. Assignment to leadership roles cannot just happen, we need to deliberately grow and place the right talent. We need to ensure those who self-identified through behavior are ready to lead. And we have a responsibility to sponsor them for the most significant opportunities to lead us into the future. A future we are actively shaping…

  • Are you giving reason for others to create opportunity for you?
  • Are you identifying the talent around you?
  • Are you willing to sponsor the most deserving or are you willing to let things play out?