Great Leaders Must Develop Others

Great Leaders Must Develop Others

Great Leaders Must Develop Others

At a time when business conversations increasingly revolve around learning and development, it is imperative that leaders at all levels ask themselves some serious questions. But first, let me make one thing clear: for great leaders, developing others is not optional; it’s necessary.

My colleague was once commissioned to offer coaching to a certain employee at a large organization. As she worked to understand the issues she was to address, the employee’s manager said: “He’s basically deadwood. We’re just offering this before letting him go.” He was merely trying to alleviate his conscience before firing the employee. He certainly didn’t believe the employee could improve or change. Which begs the question: Why invest in deadwood? Why develop someone if he’s un-developable?

A fundamental premise guides our work and mode of operation as coaches and developers of people ­– All people have the capacity to develop. All people can learn and change. If you do not believe this then you cannot develop your people. The key, though, lies in attitudes toward learning, some personal attributes, as well as the context you provide for learning to occur.


First, let’s look at attitudes toward learning.

Do you believe your people can learn and develop?

A good place to start is at the personal level: what are your deeply held beliefs around learning and development? How do you approach learning? What do you believe about others’ abilities to learn and develop? The answers may be key to unlocking significant learning potential, and may help you unblock some of your own limiting beliefs and/or beliefs about others’ developmental potential.

Do your people believe they can learn and develop?

This is especially pertinent to older people, people in mid-career or mid-life and beyond. If people do not believe they have the capacity to grow and change, to learn new skills and acquire new knowledge, whatever stage of life they’re at, then developing them is a losing battle. Their limiting beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies. What can you do as a leader? Work to provide your team with learning opportunities on the job. Stretch your people just a little bit at a time by assigning them tasks that need slightly more than their current capacities, while mentoring and supporting them through these until they realize they have learnt something new. Helping your people accumulate positive learning experiences takes them a long way in overcoming their self-doubt and believing in their capacity to develop. Work closely with them on attitude change and behavioral changes, one small step at a time. Help them develop an “I can” attitude to any challenges they face. You will soon realize that this is totally worth your time and effort.


Next, let’s look at two main personal attributes that can drive learning.

Do they have the self-awareness required to identify strengths and weaknesses?

If they don’t, then this is the first issue to tackle. Creating self-awareness is not an easy task. It requires reflection, openness, and humility. Tools such as 360-degree feedback, administered correctly, can help develop this self-awareness. Feedback in general, given constructively, helps a person develop more self-awareness. Mindfulness also helps one notice their thoughts, feelings, behavior, and impact on others. Once the individual has gained some insight on their strengths, weaknesses, hidden strengths, and blind spots, they should be ready to identify and prioritize areas they would like to develop. For some, this may mean nurturing their strengths first and then tackling areas for development. For others, this means tackling their worst weaknesses first. It all depends on the criticality of those strengths and weaknesses to their roles and responsibilities.

Are they motivated to make a change?

Sometimes, people are resting on past successes or are safe within their comfort zones. Or, they may be unwilling to stretch themselves and discover new potential. They may lack the desire or curiosity to learn new things and rise to higher levels of performance and capability. As a leader, you need to determine what motivates this person. What inspires them? What are they passionate about? What is keeping them from developing? Finding the key to unlocking motivation paves the way for meaningful development.

Some ways in which you can motivate your team to learn is through creating some buzz around learning new things. Energize your people to look for new ways, to be creative, to share their learning. You can start by publicly praising learning efforts, rewarding new behavior, and celebrating progress. Not all people are motivated by the same things, so try to use both intrinsic and extrinsic ways of motivating and rewarding. Underline the reasons behind the need to learn and develop. Try to find the key to every individual on your team rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach. Give them the autonomy to choose and design their own learning paths. Show them how this is related and essential to their roles and responsibilities, and how learning will increase their competence and thus open up new possibilities for them. And, if necessary, show how not learning and developing will negatively impact their jobs, employability, and tenure.


Now, let’s look at the context you provide as a leader for learning to take place.

Are you leading by example?

Learning and development is part of your job, too. You need to lead the way. Identify areas in which you would like (or need) to grow, start the hard work (alone or with the help of a coach or mentor), and announce it to your people! It does take humility and the courage to be vulnerable, but that certainly goes a long way in instilling a growth mindset in the people you lead.

Are you looking out for hidden potential?

Develop the capacity to spot potential in your people and to push them towards expanding their capabilities. Your belief in their potential and ability to develop becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Notice what they’re good at, what they enjoy doing, what gets them excited, and highlight those strengths for them. As an example, one of my clients was constantly downplaying her capabilities, but as I gathered feedback about her it became apparent that she had a tremendous ability to empathize and reach out to people and help them resolve conflict effectively. I worked with her and her manager to highlight some positive evidence on an ongoing basis until she started recognizing these abilities in herself. Her improved self-awareness and confidence led her to a position more in line with her strengths.

Are you providing the right support?

Your ability to slowly but surely turn the heat up in terms of challenge, stretch assignments, delegating more responsibility, and providing more autonomy can make a difference concerning your people’s growth and development. But, you also need to provide the right amount of guidance and support. Take time to coach and mentor your team members, and be generous in offering guidance where needed. This can be a structured activity with scheduled meetings, or can be informal throughout the normal day. Short, meaningful conversations can happen walking to and from meetings, making coffee, and during lunch breaks. Whether scheduled or impromptu, these conversations leave your people feeling supported and acknowledged.

How do you approach mistakes and failure?

This is an important and often overlooked part of learning. For learning to take place, people must feel safe to make mistakes and fail without fearing blame and retribution. As a leader, you must create an environment where mistakes are treated as an indispensable and natural step to success and where learning is immediately drawn from failure to inform new actions. Creating this psychological safety is essential for learning, innovation, and creativity. Move away from blame, scapegoating, and finger pointing. Encourage your people when they have failed, because that is the time they most need your support to pick up and move forward again.



One client organization had an impressive and strong leader who constantly was pushing her people to expand their horizons, increase their capabilities, and develop. Interviews and focus groups across all levels of the organization revealed a unique and strong commitment from employees to follow their director wherever she may lead because of her belief in them and their capabilities. Several people expressed that she had personally pushed them (hard and strong) to go places they never would have considered. She saw in them what they could not see in themselves yet. One employee went so far as saying “I am who I am now both personally and professionally because of her leadership and her personal interest in my development”! Several expressed their amazement at how she constantly strives to develop herself and take her capabilities to a higher level. It was her example and support that inspired the people around her to learn and develop.

Time-consuming? You bet! Potential for more mistakes? Of course! What better teacher than one’s own mistakes? But absolutely worth the investment and effort.

We need more leaders like that – leaders who are willing to take the risk, endure criticism, tolerate (and encourage!) mistakes for the sake of learning, and invest in their people’s development. I know I personally wouldn’t be where I am now had it not been for some key mentors and leaders who pushed me, stretched my capabilities, and helped me believe in my ability to constantly grow and develop, even when I couldn’t see it myself.


Now go… develop yourself and your people!


Dr. Mariam Shebaya is Founder & Principal at Mpact Consulting & Coaching. She helps organizations, small businesses, teams, and individuals develop. An Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, Organization Development Consultant, and Executive Coach, she focuses her expertise on the fields of Leadership and Organization Development.