Leadership Capacity

Leadership is such a vague concept. When we hear the word we think of charismatic individuals, great generals, engaging politicians, or renowned business people. We generally think of people situated at the top of an organization who attract attention to their accomplishments. And, as of late, the topic of leadership is often discussed in the context of succession and looming leadership gaps.

In my view, we need to change the way we think of leadership. Leadership is so much more than a position in an organization.  Leaders exist throughout any and every organization. And they demonstrate leadership every minute of every day.

Many people consider themselves leaders because circumstances have put them atop whatever they do. Their position may make them managers of people and projects but it does not make them leaders, in the true sense.

Leaders are folks who see opportunity and try to seize it. Leaders exercise good judgment and take wise risks. Leaders create a culture that allows others to flourish. Leaders convey a sense of commitment that compels others to follow. Ultimately, leaders are created by their ability to build a following.

In the next decade, millions of Canadian Baby Boomers will retire. Many leaders and HR professionals look to the future with trepidation. Who will become the leaders of tomorrow? Are they prepared for the task ahead? However, when you frame leadership as a set of behaviors as opposed to a position or a specific act you begin to see leaders and potential leaders all around you. If you look through the lens of ‘leaders are all around you’, then the concept of building leadership capacity becomes far more tangible.

Fundamentally, building leadership capacity is about development and providing opportunities. Through the creation of development plans coupled with providing opportunities for growth, emerging leaders will have the necessary feedstock they need to become great.

Instead of attempting to harness the people in your organization while trying to make them conform to the norm, allow their creativity to flow. Let them pursue initiatives and actions that are different – utilize their natural abilities. Give them a specific set of goals but allow breadth in how to get there. Provide the platform for achievement and you will be surprised at what your team can accomplish.

If you create opportunities for folks to shine, building leadership capacity tends to look after itself – at least to a certain extent. Much of what needs to be done to enhance leadership capacity starts with the existing leaders on the ground. If you have a strong set of values guiding your organization you create a touchstone for appropriate behaviour. Reinforce values based behaviour, give potential leaders opportunities to do good work, offer encouragement to showcase their ability and you will see the natural leaders emerge. If you couple this with the appropriate training and development programming you will see the leadership capacity of your organization grow exponentially. Pair these foundational elements with tailored development plans and you will witness some amazing outcomes.
To my way of thinking, building leadership capacity is less about the latest in HR trends and more about giving folks the chance to succeed (and fail).  It is more about creating the right environment and allowing people to step up. It is more about rewarding the appropriate behaviours and utilizing the natural born differences people have.

The path each organization takes to create an environment that supports this mentality will be different – a product of their size, industry, and pre-existing cultures. In my over 35 years in the recruitment and consulting business, I have witnessed many different routes towards this destination. However, experience suggests that these conditions are prerequisite to fostering great leaders.

Keep your definition of leadership broad and you will see that leadership traits reside in everyone. By deliberately and thoughtfully nurturing these traits you will see the capacity of your organization grow.  For many of us, the leader of tomorrow is just across the hall.  He or she just does not know it yet.


By Mark Surrette, co-founder of Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette (KBRS).