Leadership Principle #9 – Develop Your Subordinates’ Leadership Potential

It was a gutsy move by a real leader.

An Army unit was on training.  It was cold, wet and miserable.  (As soldiers say: “If it ain’t raining, it ain’t training.”)  The next event on the training schedule was for the unit to make a lengthy night move (under blackout conditions).  This is a dangerous and difficult task at the best of times.

As the unit began its preparations, the Commanding Officer gathered together his Master Corporals.  These are the Team Leads of the Army, full of enthusiasm and potential but limited in experience.  The CO was short and to the point.  Their supervisors had all been “killed”.  It was now up to them to do jobs well above their pay grade in order to  make the night move happen successfully.  Any questions?  No?  Get moving.


The CO records that the Master Corporals responded to this “curve ball” with a quiet “Yes, sir” and accomplished this challenging task with confidence and success.  They were able to do this because their supervisors had consistently invested time and effort into teaching those Master Corporals how to do their boss’ job.

In organizations that routinely do high risk tasks, training people to do their boss’ job is a “no-brainer”.  In a crisis situation, if the leader of the team becomes incapacitated, the quickest route to disaster is for the remaining team to dither wondering what to do.  The second-quickest path to disaster is for the team to follow the direction of someone who has a powerful personality but actually doesn’t know what they are doing.

The practice of training your subordinates to be able to replace you is, unfortunately, rarer in organizations that work on the assumption that tomorrow will be just like today.  Training junior personnel for greater responsibility can be seen as, at best, “overhead” (Why do we need to invest in this?) and, at worst, as threatening. (If they know how to do my job then my own job security will be at risk.)  However, the costs to the organization of not doing this can be enormous:

  •  A key manager falls ill and a time-sensitive initiative is put at risk because nobody knows for certain how that manager did his job.
  • A fleeting and potentially valuable opportunity is lost because the people with the knowledge to take advantage of it had no spare capacity.
  •  Employees with high leadership potential, frustrated by a lack of challenge, seek opportunities with your competitors.
  • You suddenly realize that 40% of your senior management is now eligible for retirement and that you will have to “go external” to replace them because the requisite talent has not been grown in your own organization.

Developing the “next generation” of organizational leaders is one of the most important tasks of the current generation.  It doesn’t need to cost a lot. Judiciously chosen developmental opportunities, coupled with skilled coaching, can develop a cadre of upcoming leaders who, when the crisis hits, will be able to say to you with confidence, “don’t worry, we’ve got this”.

How are you training “the next generation leaders” in your organization?  How could you do it even better?  Let’s talk about it!