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Recently we went through a season of downsizing. We had staffed for growth, and while we grew, we were not growing at the speed that could sustain all the managers and leaders that we had on staff. The unfortunate consequence was that two seasoned managers had to be cut, one from each of my two locations. That is never an easy process for many reasons but one of the things that immediately happens is that there is a leadership vacuum that is created. And as we all know from science class, nature hates a vacuum. Vacuums get filled, so it’s best to be intentional about what they get filled with.

How can new leaders be developed? I have written before about how most people tend to be either too harsh and uncaring as a leader, or too soft—someone not directive nor challenging enough. Most new leaders will have a tendency one way or the other, but the truth is that leaders need to be both highly affirming at times and highly challenging at others. It doesn’t come down to an either/or but rather a both/and. And then the trick is knowing when to utilize which style in those moment-to-moment opportunities that arise every day.

Sometimes teams will form into classic “good cop/bad cop” roles. This is where one person will always be the affirming while someone else will take on the challenger role. Quite simply, that is not sustainable. What is needed is for each manager to learn the leadership skills of being highly affirming when that is called for and highly challenging when it is time to draw a line in the sand.

How do you develop these skills in others? In short, awareness, practice and noticing. Here’s how it recently happened for us.

1. Awareness: Seasoned leaders, including myself and our COO, started meeting weekly with the team of leaders and simply talked about the various styles of leadership. We talk about how they were led and what style they prefer to receive and what style they are most comfortable giving. Typically those are the same so that provides some opportunity to talk about how to use the other end of the spectrum in healthy ways.

One way to talk about the different styles is to talk about them in an exaggerated way. Each end of the affirming and challenging spectrum have “shadow sides” where things start to break down. For instance, the shadow side of being too affirming is that you can start to manipulate people with flattery.

2. Practice: Once there is some basic understanding—and that only takes a meeting or two—have them start practicing and bring the results back to the team. These can become like mini-case studies for further learning. It is always best to use actual attempts from the immediate context rather than abstracted examples from somewhere else. This is a critical aspect for the pace of learning. If you do this, there will be an immediate upswing in leadership and the learning will be accelerated.

3. Noticing: Start to have them notice when others on the leadership team provide good leadership through affirmation or challenge. As soon as possible, have them start to highlight where they see results, not only in their own efforts but the efforts of others.

It's all about reputation and feedback. This is true whether you're teaching someone how to fix a car or to lead other people." —Kevin Rains, owner, Center City Collision

Developing leaders follows a predictable process, and it starts with having leaders get in touch with their preferred style and then lean into practicing other styles of leadership until they are comfortable. It’s all about repetition and feedback. This is true whether you’re teaching someone how to fix a car or lead other people. It takes awareness, practice and feedback from someone who knows more than you do. If those basic things are in place, you will grow managers into leaders. And leaders can take your team’s performance to places that managers simply can not.

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