Here’s How to Build a Leader

Should we mass-produce leaders?

Order Custom Leaders Online

I have this idea for a company. It is called Build-A-Leader. It works in much the same way as the popular company Build-A-Bear Workshop, where you can make your own stuffed animals, and where their mission is to bring the Teddy Bear to life.

My big idea is that people will visit my Build-A-Leader website to order their very own custom leader, made in their own image of how the perfect leader looks and behaves. They could choose the following:

  • height and weight
  • gender and ethnicity
  • eye and hair color
  • clothing
  • skills, attributes and attitudes

For things like competencies, customers could choose from a menu of available options, such as confidence, humility, creativity, drive, intelligence, sense of humor, mentoring, and many more.

With just a few short strokes of the keyboard and quick clicks of the mouse, the specs for the customer’s shiny new leader are sent off to the production line and scheduled to arrive on the customer’s doorstep within a few short weeks. Ready to lead. All for just $19.99, plus shipping and handling.

Sounds like a terrific idea, doesn’t it?

Happy Hugs
Make your perfect bear

Okay, Maybe Not

I suppose Build-A-Leader isn’t practical, and will never see the light of day, except perhaps in a science fiction movie.

But while Build-A-Leader will never become a reality, Build-A-Bear is very real, and in my opinion, they have one important thing figured out.

I like Build-A-Bear because the customer gets to choose. Instead of producing a commoditized bear that they hope works for everyone, they leave room for ranging individual preferences.

They know the truth: that one bear doesn’t fit all.

Leadership is Situational

Just like in leadership. One leader doesn’t fit all. We know this because we’ve seen leaders who succeeded in one company, only to struggle in the next. Because we’ve personally not hit it off with a manager who everyone else on the team adored. And, because, as leaders ourselves, we’ve discovered that a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership yields few lasting results.

Leadership is not a mass-produced unspecialized product. Because of this, we need to respect leadership for its uniqueness. For its eccentricity and idiosyncratic nature. For its unpredictability. For its specialness.

Learning Requires a Mix of Activities

If we can’t order leaders online, what other options do we have?

These days, the prevailing school of thought is that leadership is learned through a combination of the following 3 activities:

  1. on-the-job experiences,
  2. self-study, and
  3. learning from others

I subscribe to this theory, because I’ve seen it work in my own development, and in that of people close to me. This learning trifecta is what it takes to build a leader who is unique, special, and driven by their own character-based leadership traits.

Leadership is in Short Supply

But, wait. Why is it even necessary that we build leaders at all?

Why can’t we, when we need a new leader, just choose from a pool of ready leaders looking for their first or next opportunity? The reality is that good leaders are in short supply. One reason for this shortage is that leadership is equally hard to learn and hard to do.

Businesses know this. And because of this shortage, they spend millions of dollars training leaders. I know this, because I teach leadership in my organization.

But, wait, again. Why are businesses the ones doing the leadership training?

Because, for the most part, it isn’t being done sooner. Like, in school.

Leadership Should Be Learned Early

Just say no to leadership development?

I explored this same issue just over a year ago in a post called Let’s Phase Out Leadership Development. In it, I suggested that leadership development doesn’t have to be the job of organizations.

Instead, it should be required learning for all, along side math, science and reading, starting as early as elementary school. If not elementary school, then high school. If not high school, then college.

In practice, this wouldn’t completely take the place of leadership training activities in businesses. But it might change the focus to that of more reinforcement-type activities and advanced levels of learning and application.

Leadership Can Be Learned in School

I reflect on these ideas – building a non-commoditized leader, and starting the development early – as I prepare for my next semester of teaching an advanced leadership course for undergraduate business students.

Like most university courses, we cover theoretical concepts of leadership. But, leveraging the idea that leadership is best learned through a mix of activities, I ask my students to take things a step further.

My 3-pronged course framework incorporates:

  1. theory comprehension (learning through self-study),
  2. self-application (learning through experience), and
  3. real-world linkage (learning from others),

For example, some of the activities my students participate in:

  • Build a personal leadership chronology
  • Interview real-life leaders
  • Analyze leadership in action in a non-business setting
  • Share leadership best practices through social media
  • Create a personal leadership development plan

My hope is that students walk away from our semester together having internalized the ideas of leadership, ready to put them to work in their own lives and careers. Success, to me, looks like students who can do more than just pass a multiple choice test about leadership theories.

If they are able to explain what leadership means to them and how it will play a role in their current and future work lives, then I will feel that I’ve contributed to building future leaders and to the success of the organizations for which they will lead.

Here’s How to Build a Leader

Develop leaders one at a time and as soon as possible

My next semester begins soon, and I look forward to meeting my students and working with them on their personal leadership journeys.

I’ll put my online ‘Build-A-Leader’ idea to bed, and instead focus on helping these students develop as leaders through personalized study and application, one leader at a time.

I believe leaders are built one leader at a time and as soon as possible. How do you build leaders? Share your thoughts below.


5 thoughts on “Here’s How to Build a Leader

  1. Well written post and I enjoyed the Build-A-Leader idea. Indeed, leadership is a vast area. The definition of one cannot exactly comprehend the definition of another. Thanks for sharing!

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