Staying Great at the Unit-Leader Level

logo (1)Whenever I hear the term “best practices,” I shudder a little.  Whether in regards to leadership, culture, parenting, or anything really, it’s the notion that there are set ways to operate or maximize your effectiveness that bothers me a little.  Oh sure, I can generally agree that there are trends to which to pay attention.  But if one’s focus doesn’t immediately acknowledge the unique qualities of the situation, organization, or relationship, your attempts to integrate “best practices” instantly becomes a “worst practice.”

That said, there is simply a lot of greatness out there.  Great leaders.  Great organizations. Great partnerships. Great followers.  Greatness literally triumphs all around us, if we only look.  But it’s a fluid thing….greatness is.  In any specific situation, it’s here one day, gone the next, a seemingly inverse zero-sum game where the slide from greatness in one corner correlates to the increase in greatness in another.  But it’s not a zero-sum gain.  There’s no finite level of greatness in society, beyond which we cannot pass.  In fact, it’s possible (if unlikely) for all individuals and all organizations to be and remain great.

But it’s not simply in “best practices” that one may find the answer to StayingGreat.

systems-thinking copySystems thinking suggests that all elements of an organization (leaders, followers, processes, products, policies, marketing, strategy…..etc., etc., etc.) impact all other elements.  You can’t adjust one without the others feeling the impact.  It’s a complex “machine” with continuously interlinked and interdependent levers.

So, as we think about the greatness in our organizations, and we seek to understand how to retain and build upon our successes and strengths, we need to understand what greatness means in all levels and corners of the organization.  And while, entire tomes can and have been written about systems thinking, let’s just focus on leadership for the time being.  After all, leadership is the catalyst for everything else, positive or negative in an organization.  But let’s focus even further…let’s look at what greatness means (or could mean) at the unit leader’s level…..

Often, when we examine front-line leadership, the focus falls squarely on management basics (delegation, personnel policy and procedure, budgeting, and “supervision”), with only lip service paid to the fundamentals of leadership.  In fact, leadership is just as important (some would argue MORE important) at the unit level as it is in the executive suite.  So, when we have an individual who shines from a leadership standpoint, but who’s just experiencing their first taste of formal leadership experience, how do we ensure that they Stay Great as a leader?

  • Coaching – Starting with assessment (no, it’s never too early), provide your great unit-level leaders with individual coaching.  Any coach worth their weight in gold assesses the individual leader for their own strengths, weaknesses, and quality of fit with the organization and position.  Coaching must then contribute to the learning and guided experimentation of the person’s leadership experience.  And don’t forget on-going measurement of progress and growth!
  • Mentoring – Among the most power tools available for keeping a great leader growing is leveraging mentorships both within and external to the leader’s organization.  By developing an approach focused on formal mentoring and peer-to-peer mentoring, and that aligns with coaching and development approaches, learning becomes comprehensive and sustainable.
  • Development – Not just training, development involves a customized mix of formal classroom theory, application, and external networking to be most effective.  Whether the correct route is through formal educational credentialing (with a focus on applied and experiential learning) or pursuit of stretch assignments and growth opportunities within the organization, development must be “individually-driven” and “organizationally-supported.


The Coaching-Mentoring-Development triad is but a starting point for ensuring unit-level leaders Stay Great.  It’s not rocket science, but when deployed using the most comprehensive measurement and assessment techniques (using valid and reliable instruments), the approach can substantially elevate your chances of truly building positive leadership impact in your organization.

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