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Dull Blades are Dangerous: The easy but irresponsible practice of promoting unprepared leaders


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Managing Self
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By Tom Davidson

One small but important right of passage for every young Boy Scout is earning his Totin’ Chip award. To earn it, a Scout has to learn and demonstrate that he knows how to carry, sharpen and use a knife, axe and saw. It’s a safety program to prevent injury to themselves and others when camping, collecting fire wood and building fires, but it also has significance in leadership.

Tools like knives, axes and saws are only dangerous when they’re used improperly, and putting them in the hands of young, eager novices like these has some inherent risks. There are similar risks when promoting young eager leaders who are untrained, untested and unprepared for their roles. Making matters worse, new leaders are given potentially dangerous tools (e.g., performance evaluations) and authority (e.g., delegation) they don’t know how to use, which can be detrimental to others as well as themselves.

Thrusting individual experts into supervisor, manager or team leader roles without readiness or training is easy but irresponsible. We promote them because:

  • Somebody has to fill these leadership roles and sometimes in a big hurry.
  • There just aren’t enough ready leaders to choose from.
  • Most senior managers – who are often doing the promoting – don’t know how to evaluate, train or mentor their replacements.
  • Senior leaders are too busy fighting their own fires to spend the necessary time to development, coach and train others.
  • We continue to assume that because a potential leader was good at their last job, they’ll be good at the next one.

To keep new managers safe and prevent them from causing more problems than they solve, responsible senior leaders can and must do the following:

  1. Evaluate readiness. Instead of guessing, hiring managers should consult with human resource professionals to identify just how ready people are for the next level of leadership. Organizations such as Psychological Consultants, Inc. have decades of experience with leadership assessment technologies and testing that simulates several levels of leadership roles, evaluate leadership skills and provide development plans.
  2. Provide quality training. You would never put someone behind the wheel of a vehicle, sit him or her at a manufacturing control panel, or hand them a chainsaw without training. But we promote new leaders ever day without an hour of preparation. Contact Leadership Nature or any qualified leadership training provider for quality and customized leadership services to get your people up to speed before they hit the ground.
  3. Tap your internal expertise. More than likely, your organization already has hard-earned expertise at many levels, and that internal talent pool is largely untapped for the next generation. It can be utilized more effectively by training your subject matter experts to be good trainers. Contact The Training Coach for information about how to choose and develop your internal experts to pass along what they know before they go out the door forever, and contact Davidson Leadership for information on how to develop a mentoring program.

With the accelerating retirement of the baby boom generation, the need for new leaders is trickling down to every level in every organization at a rapid pace. So get ready to give your new managers the tools they need – with the wisdom to use them – before they hurt themselves or someone else.

It’s the nature of developing safe and effective leaders, and it’s the nature of leadership.


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