One of my major worries as a grandfather and father is when children get hurt. Hurting comes with exploration and (unlike adults) children usually recover quickly.
When Naomi began crawling she discovered a way to challenge herself – stairs! Our house has stairs leading to the second floor. When Naomi discovered the stairs she immediately wanted to try them out.
From the very first time, I crawled up each step behind Naomi; protecting her from tumbling backwards and ensuring she made it to the top successfully. Naomi wanted to do it again so I carefully walked her down to the bottom. She could not walk independently yet, so this was amusing for her, too.
After that first experience with the stairs, every time Naomi came for a visit, she made a beeline for the stairs. I always followed her, and I reminded her each time to wait for me. I noticed that she would check to make sure I was behind her before she began climbing the stairs.
One day she surprised me. She entered the house and wanted to go up the stairs. I was outside, so Naomi sat on the bottom step waiting for me. As soon as I came in the front door she giggled and started hustling up the stairs.
Here is my point as it relates to leadership.
As a mentor to emerging leaders, you are constantly guiding and shaping their leadership skills even when you do not realize it. This means that you have to be clear in your intentions because they are critical to the attitude and success of those you are mentoring.
Similar to what I did for Naomi, you are:
Protecting Them from Harm
You do this by ensuring that they do not take on more responsibility than they can handle. You want them to grow and be challenged but not to burn out prematurely or fail miserably.
Preventing Them from Sliding Backwards
When she first started going up the stairs she occasionally slipped or missed a step. Likewise you are behind the emerging leaders supporting them in numerous ways. With the knowledge of your full support, the new leader will gain confidence. Being a leader is not easy, especially in the beginning. Old habits die hard so one of your duties as mentor is to point out opportunities where the new leader could improve.
Transfer Reliance from your Expertise to Theirs
There is a fine line that you have in front of you and need to be aware of. It is possible to create a condition where the new leader fails to develop his or her own judgment and relies solely on yours. In the early stages of development of a new leader, that is OK. But at some point, they need to try and fly on their own wings.
I let Naomi slip when she missed a step. As painful as it was, I knew she only needed to know how to recover.
With those you mentor, it is important that they learn from their own mistakes and poor decisions. The quicker they accept this as a condition of leadership, the quicker they can lead on their own.
Take on Responsibilities with Enthusiasm
A critical area of leadership that mentors often overlook is enthusiasm. Naomi, no matter how tired she is, climbs the stairs with enthusiasm. She gets a sense of accomplishment each time she reaches the top and another when she makes it back down.
You can instill enthusiasm in your new leaders by creating a celebration each time the person makes a decision, takes an action, and takes the lead. This may feel uncomfortable at first. Get over it! Studies confirm my observations that when humans celebrate their endeavors, the enthusiasm to continue the endeavor increases. I will bet that you experienced that early in your life. The problem is that we forget how important the celebration is to us.
Enthusiasm begets enthusiasm.
Ennui begets ennui.
Which attitude do you want your firm urging leaders to have: enthusiasm or ennui?
In the End
You want your inexperienced leaders to take charge sooner rather than later. You can make this happen by carefully adopting these four practices as you train, coach, and mentor your designated leader.
1. Protect them from harm in the preliminary stages of their leadership responsibilities.
2. Transfer their reliance from your expertise to their own.
3. Prevent them from sliding backwards by focusing on where they can improve.
4. Build their enthusiasm by being enthusiastic for them and celebrating their own competence and growth.
You will discover that the leadership learning curve actually shortens.