Should Leadership Development Start at the Top or the Front Lines?

Photo by Samuel Zeller on  Unsplash

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Spoiler alert: the answer is “Yes!” As I have worked with clients, whether internal such as during corporate leadership roles or external clients such as in my current practice, I have often been asked this question, with the underlying assumption that these options were somehow mutually exclusive. In answering this question, in many cases I have had to influence clients to take a different approach than the one they had in mind, because it was based on the mistaken assumption that you can’t do one while you do the other.

There are two traditional approaches to this subject, as you might expect, and each have their own merits and downsides. The first is that leadership development should start with front-line leaders. The argument for this option is that, most of the time, development opportunities are given to the people at the top and everybody else ends up fending for themselves. This is certainly a valid argument in many organizations that don’t value their front-line leaders enough to invest in their capabilities, beyond what is absolutely necessary for them to get the job done. The second school of thought is that the top leaders should be developed first, so that they can role model the behavior change that they expect in others. This is also a valid argument because unless the top leaders understand and role model the principles that are being taught, they will send conflicting signals that will show up as barriers to those who embrace the ideas and are trying to act on them.

Of course, as mentioned before, the greatest flaw with both of these approaches is that they treat the question as an “either/or” situation where no such constraint exists. It is a misleading false dilemma that you must focus your efforts on training one group over the other. It is like asking whether the military should train the generals first or the soldiers first. If you choose one or the other, you will be at a dramatic disadvantage to those who choose to do both!

It is for this reason that unless there is a well-defined, urgent need in a particular part of the organization that justifies concentrating the development effort on a few individuals or a particular layer of leadership, there’s no reason you shouldn’t take a hybrid approach and train both groups at the same time! After all, what argument is there against starting at the top and the front lines, and meeting in the middle in half the time, with much less friction and much greater integration? Although there is some flexibility in terms of sequencing the activities and prioritizing one group over the other in the short term, what I have often practiced as a leader, and what I recommend as a guide to my clients, is that we take a parallel approach.

This is a lesson I learned when I led the High Performance Organization Effort for a few years with my last employer. Shortly after I arrived and following a couple of months of visiting multiple sites to “seek first to understand,” I put together a series of leadership development programs that I took on the road to develop the top 2-3 layers of leadership at each location. The programs were very well received and the demand for those programs kept me on the road 3-5 days a week for a few years. However, shortly after I started facilitating these sessions, it became clear to me that we would benefit immensely from designing and implementing a similar process for those on the front lines. While they may not have had the same level of authority or responsibility as the top leaders, they could nevertheless be just as impactful, if not more, as the leaders at the top of the organizational chart, in shaping the employee experience for the large majority of the people whom they supervised.

The programs were received extremely well by the front line leaders for a number of reasons:

1.       They appreciated the investment the company was making in developing them into more effective leaders, not just better “workers.”

2.       They picked up skills, tools, and mindsets that made them more effective in engaging, influencing, and developing their team members.

3.       They recognized in the course of those sessions that they didn’t have to wait for their bosses to become perfect leaders, and that they had the power to be proactive and make things happen, even in the face of obstacles.

4.       Best of all, they took comfort in knowing that their leaders were also going through a leadership development process that was rooted in the same principles they were being exposed to, because in some cases it was clear that their leaders needed this type of development just as much as, if not more so, than they did.

There were certain parts of the training that were directly applicable for both groups, such as what I call “personal transformation,” regardless of whether or not they were in a leadership role. In fact, I often had people from several layers of the organization in the same session for these discussions, and everyone was able to actively participate and connect at a level that transcended their roles and titles and take away what was relevant to them. The positive side effect of such an experience was that people saw the human side of each other and were able to relate to and communicate with one another more effectively than they had in the past. Other parts of the training, namely “culture transformation,” were customized such that the content and delivery would resonate with a specific audience based on the specific challenges they faced in their roles. This part of the training was delivered to audiences with similar levels of responsibility.

In the end, the magic of having these parallel efforts running side-by-side was that the language of transformation and the specific distinctions that most strongly resonated with the audience permeated all levels of the organization and formed a common part of the language that everyone spoke as they worked through everyday challenges and opportunities.

When it comes to leadership development and workplace culture transformation, the goal is to change behaviors that are producing today’s results and morale to the ideal behaviors that will collectively produce the ideal results and employee experience. The only way sustainable behavior change can happen is if the person finds the motivation, or will, and the ability, or skill, to change, and makes a decision to do so. In the absence of these three components—the will, the skill, and the decision—at best some temporary behavior shift will occur, and at worst, nothing will change. As leaders, it is our responsibility to create this moment of truth for as many people in the organization as possible, and the most effective was to make this happen is to alter the conversation in the organization to one that creates bias for action and a sense of confidence that the result will be worth the effort to change.

The main reason change often takes a long time is not because it takes us a long time to change, but because it takes a long time for our conditions to be met for us to decide to change. We wait for others to go first, we want some assurance that if we go first, others will follow, we complain about others who are unwilling to change, etc. Hence, the best way to generate the right conversations across the board and give people a compelling reason to make an authentic decision to change is to expose as many people to the distinctions of effective leadership as possible.

About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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