Leadership Development in the Growing Season

Leadership Development in the Growing Season

Glance at any talent management conference agenda, review any benchmark study list and — if you dare — check the unsolicited emails stuffing your inbox.

Odds are one topic is at the top: How to grow better leaders.

Better leaders to inspire the new workforce; better leaders to tackle complex, global challenges; better leaders ready for bigger roles. Of course, this is a key topic for talent managers. We need to hear the stories, read best practices and click on a few of those vendor emails to keep up.

But if you step back and really consider how any one individual grows in a meaningful way, it’s rarely one thing. So the companies serious about growing leaders tend to orchestrate a series of things, much like a master gardener goes beyond any single act of “weeding and feeding” to tending to a promising crop over the growing season.

Based on my experience from the genuine masters, there are seven critical elements of cultivating leaders.


Leadership is a contact sport. No amount of PowerPoint presentations or TED Talks will do the job. The challenge could be stretch roles or enriching a current job. The objective is to provide real-life and real-time situations that pull leaders out of their comfort zone and into the learning zone.


If job challenge is all about action in the heat of battle, reflection is the intentional disengagement for a cool pause of contemplation. It’s the periodic review of a leader’s real impact vs. intentions, a self-discovery of strengths, values and internal motivation. Often, this is delivered through “after-action reviews,” 360-degree feedback or reflective journaling. Leaders are wired for action, so reflection needs to be an intentional strategy.


Stretch challenges combined with reflection often reveal capability gaps. The best organizations fill gaps with many resources for growth. For example, coaching, conferences, peer connections or role-model encounters are all tools to help fill gaps. The point is to create the gap tension first and then provide a reasonable balance of help.


The “weed and feed” care a master gardener provides is a regular practice, not a singular event. Development works best with reminders, reinforcements and re-inspirations. Most companies fall short on leadership development because they see the growing season too short-term. Regular investments in a disciplined, integrated fashion produce the best leadership crop. Map out a series of development moves over the full growing season for leaders.


The cover of every seed packet shows a fully grown plant — what success looks like. The same is true of leadership expectations. Use a simple, consistent set of leadership standards as a centering point for growth.


Make the expectation of development explicit to the growing leader and the manager. Too often we leave this to chance or just assume a good assignment, a mentor or executive education program will produce results. Be clear on the role of each. Identify competencies to be demonstrated, knowledge to be gained and judgment to be developed. Use talent reviews to assess progress to expectations.


While I’m not sure of the power of mindset in the garden, I do know a leader will not develop to full potential without a special mindset. An open, naturally curious perspective with an authentic ethic of personal improvement is a powerful growing leader attribute. A defensive and self-limiting personal orientation stunts growth and wastes development efforts. Select leaders who embody a personal improvement ethic or enrich early development efforts to engender a growth mindset.

Making the most of someone’s potential to grow into a strong leader is a rewarding and critical task for today’s master talent gardener. We are all being asked to create more yield with the talent we’re given.

But the work isn’t easy. Consider how strong a practice you have with each of these seven leadership development elements when facing your next growing season.

(c) Kevin D. Wilde