It's time to invest in leadership

It's definitely coming. I'm starting to hear the whispers, the talk. It reminds me of the days when we were discussing Y2k but not yet doing anything about it.

Do you remember? It started with a buzz around the water cooler. "You know that this thing won't work when we get to the year 2000. In the '60s, the programmers decided to save a few bytes by assuming the 19 at the start of the year field -- no one thought that this stuff would be used for so long. We're not even sure that we have the source code. Someone's going to have to do something about that someday before it's too late."

Well, I'm starting to hear the same sort of buzz, although this time, it's not about the software, it's about the people.

"Have you noticed that most of our managers and executives are about the same age? They're all baby boomers, and they're going to start to retire in the next few years. We're not sure that we have the managerial bench strength to fill these roles. Somebody's going to have to do something about that someday before it's too late."

Soon, we are going to have to start preparing the next generation of technical leaders to accept responsibility, to carry forward. But so far, not too much is happening. I sense that this is the year when many organizations are going to start getting serious about planning for this inevitability.

But this time, as opposed to the Y2k event, legions of consultants, contractors and outsourcers won't solve the problem. If you want new and effective leaders, you will need to grow your own. It will become a tight market for buying talent, and the talent you're able to buy won't come with loyalty.

This leads us to several important questions. Can you do anything to grow new leaders? Can leadership be taught? Can it be learned? If so, how?

Of course, there are legions of classes being offered on "leadership skills." But a five-day class, a personality inventory and a 360-degree evaluation will not inculcate the depth required to guide a smart, dedicated and, frankly, difficult technical staff.

In her new book, "Leadership Can Be Taught" (Harvard Business School Press, 2005), Sharon Daloz Parks captures the dynamic and difficult nature of guiding people to learn to lead. As part of her treatise, she documents the teaching of Ronald Heifetz of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who has been evolving an effective approach for nearly two decades. The course he teaches is built around his book Leadership Without Easy Answers (Belknap Press, 1994).

The observations of both Daloz Parks and Heifetz resonate with my own thoughts about what it takes to learn to lead. Here are a few key ideas that you should consider if you plan to grow your own leaders.

Leadership lessons are best learned by reflecting on personal experiences and integrating that insight with theory. Just reading a book won't make anyone a great leader. But just looking in the mirror is an equally hollow basis for learning.

Reflection requires a small learning community. This kind of learning requires deep thinking and personal honesty. This sort of developmental work is usually wrenchingly emotional and difficult. No pain, no gain. And it is best done in small groups of peers who have built a sense of mutual trust that makes it possible for them to be open with one another.

Leadership is best learned by midcareer professionals. While we may like the image of the young, energetic, natural leader, in the real world, learning from experience requires having enough experience to learn from. Without what Daloz Parks and Heifetz call "grist for the mill," a potential leader's understanding and insight are likely to be shallow at best.

Learning to lead requires extended engagement, not a quick fix. No one learns to lead at a boot camp. Leadership is about much more than skills. Learning leadership transforms the mind of the leader. Changing minds requires time and attention. It's not an overnight transformation.

It's time that we in the technical industry begin to pick ourselves up from the pain of the past few years and start looking ahead. It's time to stop whispering about the coming leadership gap and start investing in our future.

Paul Glen helps technical organizations to grow better leaders and managers to perform at their best. He is the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks. Contact him at info@paulglen.com.

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