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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Healthy Leader

When the first flower appears at the beginning of spring, you can be confident that there will be several flowers in just a matter of days. This power of nature is a good metaphor for how one may view leadership. As one observes the world around him, it quickly becomes clear that health exists in organisms that are growing, improving in form or function, and reproducing new, healthy organisms. This definition of a healthy leader can be referred to as organic leadership. It is this style of leadership that is essential in today's rapidly changing world.

To examine organic leadership, it is important to start by looking at each facet of a healthy organism. First, healthy organisms grow. Multi-cell organisms start small and grow larger over time. Some organisms do this rapidly, others much more slowly, but growth is a common aspect of complex organic life. Even simple, one-cell organisms increase in size over time. Likewise, the organic leader will grow or develop in some key ways. These areas include developing in skills that can range from gross to fine motor movements, intellectual and analytical proficiency that is headed toward mastery, awareness moving toward excellence of processes and procedures necessary to achieve set goals, and understanding and ability to work effectively with others.

The growth aspect of leadership is essential to develop the skills necessary to move toward personal success while developing influence in the lives of others. In this area, an individual will demonstrate repeatable results in effectiveness and efficiency. Developing the requisite skills--an on-going development process--prepares and mobilizes people into situations where they begin to develop influence in the lives of others. Ultimately, this points toward increased leadership capacity as well as the scope and breadth of an individual's influence.

Second, healthy organisms improve in form or function. A budding plant, such as a tulip or rose bush, start with small sprigs of green growth poking out of the ground. Though at different rates, each grows until a bulb or bud are visible. Then, within days, a beautiful bloom opens wide with color. In the same way, the healthy leader will evaluate the value or quality of the influence she exerts. She will ask the hard questions. She will grapple with the ethical issues. Defining, clarifying, and seeking to consistently live out her values will be key to her long-term success in each area of life. Regular, honest analysis serves to protect and promote the health of the leader, those she leads, and the organizations she influences.

The growing organism is not always healthy. There are times when growth is a negative trait. For example, cancer, which can grow at abnormally high rates, achieves no good result for the organism it attacks. Some growth may be healthy, though when left unchecked can cause significant problems. This can be seen in a healthy man that takes in more calories than are required on a consistent basis. Within time, this will create problems related to health and beyond. The healthy leader must evaluate what growth is healthy, to what extent, and at what cost. Evident in areas of work-life balance, poor decision-making based on excessive drive for profitability that is the root of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and the ethical lapses which allowed the downfall of organizations such as Enron are all representative of the problem with growth that is left unexamined in the health of its form or function.

Third, healthy organisms reproduce. A favorite time of year for many is the beginning of spring. When the first glimpse of green appears, one may be confident that there will be an increasing supply of green leaves in the days to come. When the birds start chirping in early spring, it is certain that soon there will be nests of baby birds calling out. Similarly, a healthy leader will reproduce other healthy leaders. The emphasis that market leaders such as General Electric and Toyota among many others place on development of people is indicative of the need to raise up new leaders.

Trends in development include the standard of training combined with more recent formal additions of mentoring and coaching. One of the best persons to deliver this mentoring or coaching is the direct supervisor as she has the most opportunities to interact with individuals on a daily or frequent basis. Related to the objectives of the organization, she has the most to share about what a job-well-done looks like and how to achieve it.

As leaders at one position are promoted up through the organizational chart, their ongoing success is contingent on how effectively they have developed leaders to work in the positions that will be left vacant and the team that will carry out the work that is to be done. True leaders will view other developing leaders as colleagues that are essential to long-term success both for the organization as well as the individual.

Finally, developing healthy organisms is a process. Periods of time where trees are not rooted in the ground do not exist. There will be days, weeks, or months where there may be less rainfall or sunshine than usual, but the organic process is ongoing. The same is true for leaders. There will be new skills or processes to learn or create that may progress quicker than expected. Perhaps dealing with a certain person will not take the expected course and cause some difficulty that the leader will have to sort through. However, the purpose of developing others is a process that needs ongoing attention, work, and examination. One writer put it well: "Developing leaders isn't a program; it's a way of living."*

Leaders develop leaders. This organic leadership process is key to the future health and success of an organization. The true leader will be seeking continual growth, improvement in form or function, and reproduction. These leaders and the organizations they invest themselves in will be the organizations that are able to successfully deal with a rapidly changing world.

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