How Would You Vote on This Leader Development Debate?

I was recently interviewed to be a coach for a leader who runs a company owned by a venture capital organization. After laying out the situation for me, the person seeking to hire me asked a question I hear a lot at the end of an interview: “Based on what I have shared with you, Scott, can this leader be developed?” My answer to this question is almost 100% of the time a dramatic Yes!

Man putting a ballot into a voting box - USA

It is not can a leader develop, rather, how difficult will it be for them and what are the chances that the desired change will be observable by followers? My position on leader development is simple: Anyone who has a positive, healthy, mental outlook can be developed through coaching - IF they really want to change. In coaching, we often spend too much time focusing on the skill of the coach and not enough on the desire of the leader to change.

I love what Angela Duckworth says at the end of her book, Grit, about this. You can grow your grit in one of two ways; from the inside-out, which is to cultivate your interests and practice. Her perspective is that you can also grow your grit from the outside-in via parenting, mentoring, friendship, and yes, even coaching. The question is not if change can occur, the question is how and how long.

I thought it might be fun to look at the “can the leader be developed" debate via a case study. This will give you an opportunity vote on whether you think these types of leaders can really learn and change.

Case Study

You have an opening in your organization that has been created by the retirement of someone who has previously held a few different roles in the organization, but held the one he is retiring from for about 8 years. There have been several applications made since the posting of the job, but the choice has been narrowed down to two candidates. One is an internal candidate and one is an external candidate. Neither candidate is perfect for the role, so you know that some development is going to be required for this new leader even though both have a lot of experience. Experience is key, but part of your challenge is deciding on the type of experience you will value most. You get the feeling that some changes need to be made in the role. In your interviews, both candidates claim to be agents of change and have somewhat of a track record to support their accomplishments.

The Internal Candidate

Industry experience is on her side. She has been around for over 25 years and has strong support. In fact, in a meeting with the person who is retiring from the organization his quote regarding this internal candidate was that "Your decision is a no-brainer. The future success of the organization and everything that he has worked on his entire time in the organization depends upon the internal candidate being chosen.” You value the perspective of the retiring leader, but as you reflect on his actions and reputation he really has been a “bully” in how he has accomplished organizational changes.

There is no question she is bright and has a strong network in the organization.Those who love her almost have a blind passion for her. People who you have seen think deeply about problems and how to solve them in other circumstances, seem to just answer robotically in a sort of “corporate speak” type affirmation when you ask questions about her qualifications for the role. You get this blind stare from them that feels like, “What other choice do you have?"

Since this candidate is internal there is quite a bit of history on her performance. Your impression, as you reflect on her accomplishments, is that you are really not clear on exactly what she did. Your knee jerk reaction is that her decision-making at times has been poor. It even seems like over time her story changes to fit her image, you want to call it unethical but you really can’t because you just don’t feel like you have all the data to make a claim like that.

As you pour through her files, your impression is that her judgment hasn’t always been the best, but there is nothing in her Human Resources file that supports your feeling. The feeling you get is that the entire file isn’t there, like something is missing or been deleted but you can’t put your finger on it.

You write down on your yellow note pad: Internal Candidate development needs are decision-making and judgment. Perhaps a bit unethical.

The External Candidate

Talk about slinging from the hip. This guy just doesn’t hold back at all. Opinionated and brash is what comes to your mind. You are surprised that of all the external candidates the organization looked at his name rose to the top. There were several other qualified choices, but in the end, this “outsider” rose to the top. Go figure.  You even ask yourself if you should start the external search over, but alas, getting a leader in position is more important that starting over. It seems like this search process has drug on way too long.

This external candidate has a lot of experience, although all of it has been built in a different industry. When you check around to get the scoop on him you find that there really seem to be two kinds of responses from those you talk with. Those who love him... really love him. Those who don’t... really don’t. Doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.

Since the candidate is external you wonder how his experience will translate into your organization. His external accomplishments are right in front of your eyes. You cannot deny his ability to make a tough decision. Countless people you talked to about him tell stories about the decisions he has made even when they were not the most popular.

As you pour through your notes on him, since you don’t have a formal file and some of the information he promised you has not come in yet, your impression is that while he can make the tough decision, he is a bit of a lone ranger. Your biggest concern is around fitness for the role. Really it comes down to his social skills, and he can at times be unpredictable and insensitive.

You write down on your yellow note pad: External Candidate development needs are Organizational Savvy and Executive Presence.

Your Decision

If these were the candidates you had to choose from to fill this important leadership position in your organization, what would you do? What questions are rumbling around in your head? Can you use good impulse control as the owner of this decision, separate yourself from your emotion, and make an informed decision? If you have all the information you need, what would you base your decision on? Does developing as a leader come into the equation? Which of the two candidates is most coachable? Which one seems to desire learning and development the most?

The Development Debate

You have a tough decision. Speaking strictly from a leadership perspective, which of the two candidates from the case study will respond to development and coaching? You know you are going to have some work to do no matter which candidate you choose. What kind of stories will you be able to tolerate as you observe the candidate you choose as a leader?

You glance down at your yellow note pad, which has reduced all the clutter and noise about your decision, to two sentences:

  1. External Candidate Development Needs: Organizational Savvy and Executive Presence.
  2. Internal Candidate Development Needs: Decision-Making and Judgment.

Which of these two is most likely able to change and develop upon the retirement of your current employee?


Watch the Presidential Debate tonight (Monday, September 26th) along with almost 100 million other people. Since no leader is perfect and we all need to develop, strictly from a leadership development perspective, what goes into your decision? I would love to know what you think. Send me a comment or a note. I am not really interested in how you will vote, rather I am much more interested in what you think about the nuances of leader development.