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We Become Great Leaders by Working with Great Leaders

When Your Role Models Are Great Leaders, You’re on Your Way to Greatness

Walt Disney, Lawrence Frank and Walter Van de Kamp outside The Tam O'Shanter Inn 1960

Walt Disney with Lawry’s founders Lawrence Frank and Walter Van de Kamp at the Tam O’Shanter restaurants 38th anniversary in 1960

You can learn to become a great leader without ever taking a leadership training class. And taking every training class on leadership that ever was won’t turn you into a leader. Leadership classes support the main event but can never replace it. They only enhance our leadership development efforts.

And yet when we talk about leadership development, most people immediately think about some type of formal program or process be it a class, training, exercise, coaching session, feedback loop, assessment and more. There is no question the restaurant industry has dramatically increased its investments in these and related formal programs to help develop leaders.

This is a good thing. These support tools can improve and speed up our development. They simply cannot replace the main event itself which can only occur when working with your boss or someone else who is around you frequently.

7 Ways Role Models Turn Us into Leaders

We primarily learn to become leaders by working with and for leaders whether our direct report or someone else we spend frequent time with. Nothing else can replace a relationship of this type in leadership development. Here’s what it really takes to develop effective leaders.

1. A role model we can observe doing it right.
Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos Quarterback

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, a role model through his work ethic, study of the game and leadership on and off the field

You can’t simply watch that model once a month or a quarter. You have to see them in action in a real world situation on a frequent basis to pick up all the nuances. And when you see someone doing certain things, it gives you the confidence to try it yourself. Even an experiential classroom exercise can’t do that because you are not dealing with real employees in your actual place of work that affects your career.

2. Feedback from our role model

Who is going to have the most credibility in telling us how we are doing and how we can improve? It’s the person we look up to as a leader. It’s the person we have let lead us because we trust them. It’s the person who has repeatedly watched us in action with real employees. When that person shares insights that can help us, we listen carefully. We ask good questions. We pay attention and we want to apply what we learned. The source of the feedback is absolutely critical in leadership development. Hearing this in a classroom setting or from an assigned coach is just not the same thing.

3. What we hear from others who work for our role model

When our co-workers confirm our own perceptions of a leader, it strengthens our conviction that this is the person we want to emulate and learn from. This is who can help us grow and develop. This is who can help us become what we want to become. The depth of our confidence in who we learn from dramatically affects how much we learn. And that level of confidence requires more than a degree, a certification, a title or experience in conducting training classes.

4. Our role model allows us to spread our leadership wings

Experience ultimately is the best teacher. And that experience has to happen on the firing line in the real world, not in a simulated environment. A great leader grows leaders. Their primary role is to develop others to become leaders. So they will assign projects and task to those showing promise that force them to take on a leadership role and step outside of their comfort zone. Sometimes we will fly and sometimes we will fall but we will be given the opportunity to spread our wings. It is only in this way that we discover how far we have grown as a leader and what we need to learn next.

5. Our role model waters the seeds planted from classes and reading

We also need to learn more about leadership. Maybe we have taken a leadership class offered by our company or an outside provider. Maybe our role model suggested we read a book or a blog. This plants seeds that can help us grow as a leader. It is our role model who must water and fertilize those seeds so they help us become better leaders. New information however presented must be frequently reinforced and expanded on over time to convert it into something we can apply on the job. Only someone who works with us can do that.

6. Our role model continually leads us to higher levels of growth
Norm Brinker, Brinker International

Norm Brinker, founder of Steak and Ale and developer of many restaurant industry executives

Becoming a leader is not a destination. It is a lifelong journey. No matter how much we learn and grow, there is always more to learn. The best leaders are the ones who keep growing over time. So a great leader keeps those who work for them on a continuous improvement path always helping them to learn more, take on new challenges and spread their wings further.

7. Our role model makes leadership development a top priority 52 weeks a year

We grow into leaders and become better leaders when we are focused on leadership development every week of the year. This is not just something we focus on when there is a class, speaker, special event, assessment or when a coach has been scheduled to talk with us. It must be something we live and breathe every week on the job. When our role model makes our development as a leader a top priority that’s when we truly grow as leaders.

Train Management How To Develop Leaders

We need more programs to train management how to develop leaders. We need to teach them how to be role models and how to help their people develop into better leaders. Every manager and executive needs training in how to effectively develop leaders because they are the ones who are growing our future leaders.

Emma Watson speaking at the United Nations

Emma Watson, actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambasssador

As long as we continue to think we are developing leaders by sending them to training classes, we will fail to fully develop the leadership capabilities of our people. We need to do a much better job of developing the people who develop leaders on the job…because that’s where we learn how to be effective leaders.

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Leadership book: The Character-Based Leader

People trust your character, not your title. Character-Based Leaders lead from who they are rather than their position or power. Don Shapiro is a co-author and editor of this book from the non-profit Lead Change Group.