Sink or Swim Leadership Development

Updated: Mar 21, 2018


Succession planning and development are important topics at leadership consortia. What has been your experience? Do you jump at “growth” opportunities and enjoy the bumpy ride to achieve something that has never been done before? Have you been “pushed” into a role you didn’t feel you were prepared to handle? Or, do you simply roll “with the flow” and do the best that you can?


Throughout history many leaders have been hesitant to step forward to lead change. Sometimes it is because they are fearful as in the case of Steve Wozniak. He admitted not wanting to start a company because he was afraid. It took a concerted effort by Steve Jobs, friends, and his parents before he gained the confidence to leave steady employment and put his full energies into creating Apple Computer. Michelangelo refused the Pope’s request to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for two years because he believed he did not have the talent needed to do justice to such an overwhelming commission.[1]


Sometimes other people may see your leadership potential and push you forward. Other times you are the one who needs to look at a situation with fresh eyes to see what you can contribute. And there are times when everyone else in the group steps back leaving you to rise to the occasion and figure it out. My grown daughter and I were chatting one evening when I asked her to share the first time she thought of herself as a leader. She reminded me of the evening when she was in the ninth grade and her fourteen best friends went out to a restaurant before attending the high school homecoming dance. Our family had two large cars and was volunteered as drivers. Her father, brother, and I had dinner in a different part of the restaurant. I noticed several of her friends were milling around and went to check on the rest of the girls.


The challenge was that each fourteen-year-old young woman had been given a $20 bill to purchase dinner; however, the restaurant did not offer them separate checks. One girl had ordered a steak. Two other girls had shared a salad. Even an experienced CPA would give the situation a big sigh. My daughter had stepped forward to figure out the bill and make appropriate change for her friends as well as managing the tip. Although she was happy to see me and visibly glad for my offer to help her wade through the final transactions, she had done the bulk of the work before I arrived at her table. She simply needed reassurance. Fourteen years later, she told me her friends continue to defer to her to divvy the check when they are together.


I was proud of my daughter that night when she took a big breath and buckled down to work through the complicated dinner transaction. The onus lies with the parents (including me) who assumed our relatively level-headed, honor roll daughters who had purchased movie theater tickets, meals out with a few friends, and other sundry products would have no difficulties with the restaurant bill. None of us foresaw the complexity of a single check for fourteen girls. The next year, when the group of young women all wanted to attend dinner and the homecoming dance together, they chose a restaurant that offered them a prix fixe menu with four entrée choices so that each of them knew exactly how much money to bring. The bill was much easier to navigate because they took the lessons learned and devised a solution that smoothed out the unforeseen complexities from the previous year.


Have you ever found yourself in a situation where it turned out to be more complex than you or your manager had anticipated? This is the foundation for succession planning and development. It gives people an opportunity to gain experience so that when confronted with a more complex situation, they have a foundation from which they can take a deep breath and forge forward to navigate new situations.



An excerpt from Creating a Greater Whole: A Project Manager’s Guide to Becoming a Leader, by Susan G. Schwartz.



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