The Development of Ashley, the Aspiring Organizational Leader


A recent engineering graduate has just joined a irm. Both the entry-level engineer and the company expect her to develop as an engineer and as a leader. We will call the engineer Ashley. The company assigns Ashley to a project group that is one of a number of important teams dedicated to building a new plant to produce a new product that is expected to have a strong impact on the company's fortunes. This is an important and early opportunity for Ashley, and she knows it.

On that team, Ashley has many opportunities to work one-on-one with the team leader, Ken. Ken is a role model leader dedicated to ensuring that the team achieves its goals and to developing the leadership capabilities of his team members. After some considerable opportunity and time, Ken judges Ashley to be a competent aspiring leader.

What did Ken sense and experience in his observations of Ashley? Ken saw a competent engineer who was meeting her goals while contributing to those of the team. He saw Ashley demonstrating not only her engineering skills but also her considerable interpersonal skills. Everyone on the team inds Ashley credible; they trust her as a contributor and like her as a person. She is doing productive work and demonstrating her competence, which is contributing to the team's overall goals. Ashley is a self-starter who needs little help from the leader or others in doing her work; and she is beginning, quite deliberately, to read about and learn the skills, character attributes, and purposeful behaviours required to lead effectively.


After about a year, the project team meets its goals and is disbanded. Ken, the project team leader, is asked by the senior project leader to evaluate the performance of his team members – both their functional competence and their leadership capabilities.

In his evaluations, Ken is critical of two of his team members: they have not met all their personal objectives and have needed considerable help from Ashley and Ken in order for the team to stay on track. Also, they have not shown strong leadership capabilities, especially in terms of self-motivation and work habits. However, Ken is very pleased with how Ashley has developed. She is judged to be a highly competent engineer and has demonstrated considerable potential as a leader. She has taken the time to get to know the people on the team; she has shown very positive energy and has a tenacious – often aggressive – approach to inding ways to get things done. She has often looked for better ways to do things.

In short, Ken believes that Ashley has demonstrated leadership capability. She works effectively with others in a change environment; she is doing some public service work outside the irm; and she is learning
about the stakeholders in the communities near the plant. And, importantly, she is increasingly admired as a role model leader by a growing number of her peers.


A few years have passed, and Ashley has continued to perform well as an engineer and as a member of a number of successful teams. She has been recognized as a “go to” person. When a team leader needs to get something done and done well, they go to Ashley. As a result of her exemplary performance as an engineer and a developing leader, she is given the opportunity to lead a team that has just been formed in another department of the company. That department is developing a new process in a ield outside Ashley's functional competence, so this will be a challenge for her. If she hopes to excel, she will not be able to rely on her capabilities as an electrical engineer. In this new environment, she will need to focus on her leadership capabilities. As part of her new responsibilities, she will need to work with the department head to pick some of his team members and to develop a set of team objectives.

Ashley consults with other leaders in the company and is able to convince them to transfer some key people from their departments to her team. She is able to do this because these leaders recognize that their own people will beneit from the experience of working with Ashley, who many now recognize as a strong developmental leader as well as a good coach and role model.

Ashley assembles her team and works with them in a two-day meeting to craft a set of team and individual objectives. Included in the objectives are metrics for measuring performance as well as an aggressive schedule for carrying out the work. When crafting the team objectives, Ashley commits a signiicant amount of resources to leadership development. She researches the subject and consults with others she respects. With the team, Ashley develops a team mission statement that links its work to the company's vision. This exercise is much appreciated by the team, for the resulting statement links its objectives to the needs of the various stakeholders.

Moving forward in time, the team has met all its objectives – another success for Ashley, who is now recognized within the company as a role model leader. She is now being given more and more leadership responsibilities on larger and more important teams. She continues to work deliberately on her leadership skills, character attributes, and purposeful behaviours and as a result she is able to learn more with each new responsibility. She is respected and admired as a competent role model leader in the company.


Ashley grows through individual development, through experience, and through thinking about communities beyond the company. She is recognized as a great leader who has exceptional values and who tries to change things to make the world better. She is given a signiicant promotion within the company and is recognized as an organizational leader. She is given the opportunity to assume full accountability for a new division that will be based on the acquisition of new technology by her company. Ashley recognizes the importance of this opportunity and is conident she will demonstrate her capability as an organizational leader.

The difference between the demonstrated capability of a role model leader and that of an organizational leader is large. Put simply, organizational leaders set the direction for a complex organization; formulate an innovative vision, mission, and strategy; and engage people successfully in that shared purpose. Organizational leaders continue to learn new leadership skills, character attributes, and purposeful behaviours and to reine the ones they already have. They spend time in the world outside the company, seeking positive opportunities to serve and learn from new and existing stakeholders.

Ashley is justiiably proud of her growth and demonstrated capability as an organizational leader. In the entire irm, there are only ive leaders at this level, but she is motivated to continue developing her competence to serve others as a leader. By now she is also being recognized by outside organizations as an outstanding leader.


Ashley has demonstrated great competence as the company's senior leader. She is greatly admired by the entire company. She has become a “legend in her own time” – a superordinate leader. She has created a great deal of change – most would say transformational change – in many of the company's systems, as seen by customers, employees, and shareholders. Those changes have grown the company markedly and in many dimensions.

Ashley has been recognized outside the company as a visionary – as a high-performance leader who also serves society in many ways. At the same time, her character and behaviour are admired as value based and performance based, not personality based. In fact, many perceive this accomplished leader as humble and as more interested in service than in herself. Many inside and outside the company would agree – Ashley is a highperformance organizational leader. But Ashley knows that the goal is to achieve more – to reach for “higher-performance leadership.” Leadership is a developmental journey during which there is always more to be learned and more to achieve.

The Development of Tarah, the Aspiring Leader-Engineer

Tarah, a talented engineering graduate, has the ambition to become the company's chief engineer. This is a highly functional role, one that involves acting as an internal consultant to all of the company's business leaders. It is an extremely important role and is rewarded well, inancially and emotionally.

Tarah decides to focus on ascending the engineering functional ladder. This ladder describes the levels she will need to rise through and the competencies she will have to demonstrate at each rung. But she also buys into the idea that she will be a better engineer and a better person if she achieves some identity as a leader – that is, if she learns and gains and practises some leadership capabilities. So she consults the leadership progression hierarchy and determines to set herself the goal of achieving the competency expressed by the identity called “Developing Leader.” She makes this decision based on her belief that a chief engineer will be of more beneit to the company and to herself if she shows leadership in a team environment. The alternative – to participate on teams only as required, without a focus on team objectives and on the needs of others – would beneit no one.

So Tarah dedicates time to learning leadership capabilities and demonstrates them at every opportunity. The CEO often asks her to consider moving “up the leading and leadership ladder.” Tarah resolutely declines to do so, pointing out that her career goal is to be chief engineer. She achieves her goal, and everyone tells her that she is the best chief engineer the company has ever had. A large part of her achievement is her always evident and growing leadership competence.

Tarah and Ashley developed differently: one as a competent leaderengineer, the other an equally competent engineer-leader. And, each recognized the importance of becoming more valuable to themselves and their organization through learning to be more functionally competent in leading and leadership and their ield of expertise.

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