Is Your Leadership Scalable?

In previous postings I have shared many of the attributes that, in my experience, define great leaders. What if you already are a great leader? What if you possess many of these qualities, but they are not scalable? An important aspect of leadership is the ability to cascade your leadership skills through others who can in turn inspire and motivate people to perform at the highest levels. Scalable leadership means that the leader has the ability to translate his or her behaviors into teachable moments. It means creating a language to transfer knowledge and skills. To be able to assess who to develop and grow. Yet, there are so few leaders that can scale their leadership. Why is that? Why is it so rare?  These are some reasons that I have come across:

  1. Addicted to the applause. Leaders that enjoy the high that accompanies praise and admiration have difficulty sharing the stage with others.  There are countless examples. Maurice Greenberg, the former chairman of AIG, is well-known for his endless thirst for admiration and his boundless hate for any negative assessment of his leadership or his organization.  He built an organization led by hand-picked allies who deferred to him and to his wishes. In their quest to please the boss, they vacated the opportunity to learn and grow.
  1. Lack of faith. It is difficult for leaders to believe that someone else can perform as well as and perhaps even better than them. Or, that they could learn fast enough to risk work not completed on time and with quality.  They eventually face situations where they simply cannot be everywhere and cover all of the bases. They find themselves lonely and under resourced. Typically they redouble their effort only to experience burn out and loss of productivity.
  2. Inability to let go. Some leaders have built their reputation and are proud of aspects of their work or visibility. Rather than looking forward to the opportunities that are ahead, they seem to rest on past accomplishments, recognition, and notoriety. In her seminal book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck distinguishes this behavior as the “fixed mindset” versus the “growth mindset” – which is always seeking to learn and stretch into new horizons.  Leaders with the growth mindset have an easier time teaching, mentoring, and developing other leaders.1

This inability to scale leadership is most acute in organizations that experience rapid growth.  The strong leadership presence of the original leaders is not scaled in a timely manner.  Success requires numerous others to step into positions of leadership in order to keep up with market and shareholder/analyst demands.  The organization experiences scattered leadership, and in the absence of strong leaders who can cascade the vision and know how to make timely decisions, work is carried out in a chaotic and unaligned manner. The organization is quickly overwhelmed with numerous operational problems that ultimately effect the products, customers, and reputation of the firm.  A good example is the manufacturing safety issues in the pharmaceutical sector.  Many of these issues arose as a result of leadership being too distant from the work and not being always aware of pending problems and issues.  Not enough attention was paid to empowering local leaders to communicate upwards, and to make decisions in a timely manner. A leader I was coaching at one of these organizations told me “I knew what was going on and what was about to happen, but senior management made it abundantly clear that in view of the financial issues that the organization was facing, there was little tolerance for bad news.  I felt betrayed and powerless.”

  1. Dweck C. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.


Questions for on line conversations.

  1. Where have you witnessed scalable leadership?
  2. How was it done?

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

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