Sink or Swim: The Challenges of Leadership Development


Somewhere in a courtroom in Europe in the mid-eleventh century a judge orders the bandages removed from the hand of an accused criminal. Three days earlier, the suspect was forced to pull an iron ring out of a cauldron of boiling water. If the hand is unharmed, he is innocent; if not, he is guilty, not to mention most likely suffering from third-degree burns.

At another time in another courtroom the suspect in question is bound and thrown into a pool of water. If he sinks, he’s innocent; if he floats, he’s rewarded with a free, darkened cell with form-fitting chains and shackles for the rest of his life.

Such practices were common in the Dark Ages: trial by ordeal – justice, medieval style.

Some 10 centuries later, however, there are people inside today’s organizations who might describe their passage from individual contributor and expert roles into leadership positions as a modern-day trial by ordeal, baptism by fire, drink from a fire hose. Take your pick.

This is not to say that all individuals moving into or currently working in leadership positions were left to sink or swim on their own. In 2013, the Hay Group identified the top 20 companies in this area. At the top of the list were Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, General Electric, Coca-Cola, and Unilever.

They also reported that 73 percent of the top 20 offered broad-based talent development opportunities to every employee. These companies and others like them see leadership development as an investment, not an expense. What one is likely to see throughout these organizations are:

  • employees who are willing and open to continuous learning, and who take an active role in their professional development;
  • a developmental roadmap that clearly identifies the skills, competencies, and behaviors needed to succeed as a leader;
  • a cadre of managers that takes leadership seriously, particularly when it comes to the coaching and teaching role;
  • a talent development culture, meaning that there is both an underlying belief that people make the difference and an appropriate infrastructure for developing talent that supports this belief throughout the organization.

Over the broader landscape, however, there are marked differences in how leaders are developed.

Some individuals are fortunate to have at least key pieces of the leadership development process.

For example, maybe you have a good manager as a teacher and coach and a clearly defined succession plan with developmental assignments and opportunities that await you.

Perhaps, you have taken several courses that your organization offers, like a class on communication and feedback skills or a three-day training workshop on the secrets to successful middle management.

Maybe, you’ve had an opportunity to take a college course, or enroll in an MBA program with financial assistance from your organization.

Perhaps, you’ve had a 360 feedback assessment, or a chance to lead a highly visible cross-functional project.

Or, maybe, you are one of the less fortunate who were bound and tossed into the deep end of the organizational pool, to sink or swim on your own, left to figure out  the basics and subtleties of leadership for yourself.


Who Is Responsible for Your Development as a Leader?

In today’s constantly changing, resource-constrained world, leadership development can be a hit or miss process. We acknowledge those topflight, investment-based professional development organizations.

Yet, there are other organizations who see leadership development as an expense. When dollars are scarce, professional development is often a target.

As a new or prospective leader, a current leader, or a technical professional looking to broaden your career, take notice. This wide range of approaches raises a very important question.

Who is responsible for your development as a leader? That would be you.

The question of who owns your leadership development is best answered by the person you see in the mirror.

The moral of this story:

Take charge.

Invest in yourself.

Own your development.

Don’t worry about swimming in the deep end- piece of cake.

Share this: Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail