Don’t Delay Developing People’s Leadership Potential

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Recently, a former college professor who asked me several times to deliver guest lectures on presentations and strategy, asked me to do one on leadership. In preparation for a conversation with the class, I asked him to ask the students for specific leadership issues they want me to discuss. Two of them were:

  • When you start a new leadership job, what should you do within the first 90 days?
  • How do you terminate someone with minimal damage to all?

The first time that question was posed to me, it was by a vice President of a division of a Fortune 500 firm who had been selected as the new President of another division. I remember, because two weeks ago, the same first question was posted by a new member on our MyVistage extranet, used by 28,000 CEOs of Vistage Worldwide.

The second question is one the executives I coach often discuss. The first time it became an issue for me, was when a partner and I closed a division of our new firm and he wanted me to exit everyone. 

Why am I sharing this – because the questions were posed by high school ninth graders.

It’s a lesson that I’d experienced before. Years ago, when I led Brilliant Image, a pioneer micro-computer graphics service bureau, we had a department with computer artists. Great people and great work. As part of a national trade show program I was going to co-lead, I made a site-visit to a local High School with a pilot computer graphics program. These ninth graders were doing work equal to my staff! Wow! The next day I sat with my staff and let them know they needed to pay attention not to peers – but younger people learning their skills, who actually might have more time to perfect it.


In this case, I had decided to focus the students on the evolution of leadership thinking – from a focus on the leader (e.g., great-man theory; command-and control) who is leading small organizations, to today’s focus on empowering people within much larger organizations which consist of “teams-of-teams. They need to be agile and make decisions that are aligned with your mission, strategies and culture. For instance, in preparing my thoughts for the meeting, I decided to adapt Kouzes and Posner’s approach in The Leadership Challenge which focuses on these 5 practices, and allowed them to address issues from authenticity to empowerment:

  • Model the Way
  • Inspire a Shared Vision
  • Challenge the Process
  • Enable others to Act
  • Encourage the Heart

After the presentation, and answering questions from students in my Mentoring Internship program who listened in, I reflected on how important it is that we help high potential workers become emerging leaders capable of handling future challenges.  It’s the reason that Vistage now offers a fast-growing Emerging Leader program so CEOs and HR directors can nurture their development.

If you’re not elevating the capabilities of younger workers with high-potential, you’re missing out. Remember, Mary Barra was an assembly-line worker at General Motors, until someone recognized her growth potential and gave her a chance – probably never suspecting she’d eventually become its CEO.!

Before your company falls behind your competitors who are developing rising stars – consider an Emerging Leader Program.