How Are You Developing Future Leaders?

“Your old road is rapidly aging,” Bob Dylan proclaimed to the powers that be in 1964. “Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.” Recent experiences have left me thinking often of that now-iconic line over the past few days; in this post, I want to encourage you to think about whether you are either standing in the way or offering a hand to those coming after you.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve listened to Bill Clinton give a commencement speech to my eldest child and his classmates; done a half-day session on leadership with ten GE company officers, followed by dinner with CEO Jeff Immelt; and led a meeting with the dozen or so physicians who constitute the senior executive corps of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. I can’t stop thinking of Dylan’s song and wondering how we’re doing on developing the generation of leaders.

Hard as it might be for old folks in positions of power to see the world in a new light and embrace it, these senior people with whom I’ve been spending some time are trying their best to lend a hand to the next generation as they roll down a new road. Smart seniors who want to leave a positive legacy will pay attention to these and other examples, learn from them, and follow suit in a way that works in their world.

For decades GE has been, and remains, the most prolific net exporter of leadership talent in the corporate world, because it has a tradition — a strongly-held cultural belief — supported by the tangible commitment of time and money, for developing people. The Business Week article about GE’s efforts a few months back got it wrong in describing the current state of GE’s leadership development system as out of step with these digital times. You need not look any further than my visit to corporate headquarters for some evidence. The expressed intent of my purpose was to stimulate dialogue and raise provocative questions about what leadership means today and what it should mean in the future. With the full backing, even prodding, I felt from Chief Learning Officer Susan Peters, I encountered a readiness to challenge the status quo — to look at leadership from the perspective of not just work but of the whole person, including family and community and personal life (mind, body, and spirit) — that was as refreshing as it was inspiring. Taking time “to address the soul,” as one attendee put it, is not how things would’ve been done at GE back in the day; but, in 2010, knowing that the world has evolved and that a new leadership model is necessary for the people who will run GE in 2020, the current executives of this visionary company are taking important steps to critically evaluate, and so revise, their approach.

The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine is the site of an NIH-funded study of the impact of a series of interventions — including, full disclosure, my Total Leadership program — on the careers and lives of talented up-and-coming women faculty in academic medicine. This first-of-its kind project is an extension of remarkable efforts led by the FOCUS program, a unique initiative dedicated to advancing the careers of women faculty. We get underway in earnest later this year, and our meeting a few weeks ago was a briefing for the top team on what we are undertaking, and why. Here, in one of the most tradition-bound fields, senior executives were engaging actively in a practical discussion about the nitty-gritty of what it would take to provide support for the next generation to succeed in experimenting with new ways to get things done that are in synch with the demands of their lives beyond work; to do nothing less, in other words, than re-think the culture of academic medicine.

President Clinton aimed one of his rhetorical arrows at this same target: To his audience of fresh-faced grads he declared that you, the rising generation, must focus on creating change that is sustainable, devising new ways to live and work that fit with the needs and interests not only of your work and your families, but of your spirit, of our society, and of our intricately interconnected world.

Tomorrow’s executive leaders need all the help we can give them. Fortunately, there are some wise men and women who know this and are dedicating serious effort to exploring innovative ways to prepare them. I have seen and heard them first-hand struggling to figure out a way forward on the new road, and I’m happy to report that my impressions lead me to be optimistic, despite the enormous resistance inherent in the status quo and the difficulties of successfully inventing new forms of organization that will work better than what we have now.

Is my hope warranted? It depends in part on whether you and your organization choose to help or hinder. How are you re-making leadership development so that future leaders are ready for the world they’ll live in, not for the one we’ve known?

3 Responses to “How Are You Developing Future Leaders?”

  1. Dear Professor Friedman,

    I am very glad that we use your book “Total Leadership” in one of our master courses.
    Your suggestions about integrating all spheres of a leader’s life are extraordinary and I am very much looking forward to discuss your book in class this Friday and follow the development of my fellow students.

    But reading about the Lehman Brother’s example pp. 214 – 215 made me wonder whether you intend to elaborate on this, as the company’s insolvency may cause critical comments.
    Personally, I am sure that at the heart of this insolvency is bad leadership. And this brings forward some questions:
    Have the four way experiments have been introduced too late?
    Is the maxim “the sooner the better” also true for Total Leadership or does one need a certain degree of maturity?

    I would appreciate if you get back to my questions.

    Best regards,
    Karsten Franke

  2. Traci says:

    A classroom project led me to this blog and I am so glad it did. I am looking forward to following the content as I see it as such a tremendous value to me as I continue to look for help and advice in managing my life as a mother, older student and executive.

    I am intrigued with “Total Leadership” and will continue to look into the book and program relative to my work as an executive. As for your “…Developing Future Leaders” blog, I appreciate your question on if we “are standing in the way or offering a hand” when discussing the future leaders of our workforce.

    I am fortunate to work with a company that has a keen eye on retention of talent, workplace culture and development. I absolutely believe we, as leaders in our company, have a responsibility to be raising the next generation and therefore preparing others to take our place. What I find, though, is many are not at all comfortable with this. Dynamics that play into preparing the next generation of leaders are the aging executives who hear footsteps and are beginning to feel insecure with the demands of keeping up in an everchanging digital world and the various youthful attitudes that come into play with the younger workforce, many who have very ambitious career goals, high expectations and little professional experience.

    It’s a fascinating time and a passionate debate and definitely a great example of where the Four Experiments can play a huge role.

  3. terri says:

    Lets hope that tomorrow’s leaders can retain that idealism and altruistic behavour characteristic of their generation. So often those fresh ideals fade when financial and familial obligations increase. Yet I think Generation Y is like none other before them and I’m hopeful they will be the catalyst for significant workplace improvements.

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