Why we need more lollipop moments

It's time to rethink our approach to Leadership Development

Traditionally we think of organisations being led from the top, agree? Typically, the Board, Executive team or line management they set direction, they lead. Whilst organisation structures have become more fluid and agile in recent times (they have to be in order to respond to our rapidly changing and uncertain environment) I still believe leadership is a top-down process. This needs to change. 


We need to turn this thinking on its head and organisations need to rethink their definition of leadership. For me, leadership is everywhere. You don’t have to look hard to find it, but you may just have to look through a different lens to ‘see’ it. For example, the person walking down the street who picks up a piece of litter, my daughter who courageously disagrees with her peers (for a pre-teen/teen this is a big deal) because the way of behaving isn’t congruent with living her values, I could go on but hopefully my point is made. Would these people class themselves as ‘leaders’? I doubt it.

I find labels are unhelpful, they are black or white. You are either a ‘leader’ or ‘not’ and by default that means the vast majority of people take a passive role in leadership, they are followers. David Marquet, shares a wonderful story from his time as a US Navy commander of a nuclear submarine which illustrates the danger of following.

We were running a simple drill to simulate a fault with the reactor. In this scenario, propulsion is shifted from the main engines to a smaller, electric propulsion motor. As captain, I ordered: ‘Ahead two-thirds.’ The officer on deck repeated the order: “Ahead two-thirds.’ I noticed the helmsman who was to execute the order looked unsettled, so I asked what the problem was. He explained that there was no two-thirds in electric propulsion mode. The Santa Fe was unlike the submarines I had trained for and worked on before. The officer on deck said he repeated the command knowing it was wrong. I realised that the leader-follower environment meant his crew would do anything he said – even if it was wrong.

That’s when I began treating my crew as leaders, not followers, and giving control, not taking control. And to cut a longer story short, as a result the Santa Fe went from ‘worst to first’, achieving the highest retention and operational standings in the Navy.”

So, my first ask: stop thinking of leaders in ‘them’ and ‘us’ terms and view leadership for all. If we want to create change, gaining a swell of momentum is key and that comes from people at all levels thinking, behaving and acting differently.

And what is leadership all about? For me, it’s simply about having the courage and confidence to live your life with purpose, be the best version of you and be true to your values. So how do you get people at all levels to achieve this?

Firstly, we need to move away from thinking that leadership development equals training, it doesn’t. (I say this as a trainer myself, it is part of the picture but part of a wider blended approach to learning.) And it’s certainly not about sheep dipping people. There is a tendency to adopt a one size fits all. We are pre-occupied with sending our ‘leaders’ or our high potential talent on leadership programmes and expect a few days out of the office to bring about business transformation. Whilst, on occasion, I have seen some really powerful changes in individuals as a result of having their minds opened and acquiring new skills, for the vast majority these changes are not transformational nor enduring. People cannot be ‘told’ to be more innovative, to be more flexible, to be more engaging etc.

My second ask: we need to recognise and value diversity in leadership. We need to be aware that leadership is not fixed. Gone are the days when leadership development focused on creating carbon copy moulds of the ‘ideal’ leader, often characterised by a myriad of competencies that the individual was supposed to master and excel at. Today we need a bespoke approach which enables everyone to become the best version of themselves - human, warts and all! Playing to individual strengths and acknowledging vulnerabilities too. So how do we enable this to happen?

It starts by enabling people to be themselves – to get to know themselves. As an organisation, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your culture and your values support this?
  • Does it encourage learning and curiosity?
  • Does it enable people to find answers themselves through coaching?
  • Does it give people the permission and the skills to try, to lead and to fail safely?

In my experience you give people the ‘permission’, the confidence and the skills to lead in their personal and work lives and AMAZING things happen. In order to do this, you need to TRUST.

My third ask: Whilst the approach to leadership development needs to be bespoke to each individual it needs to be bespoke to each organisation too. So before embarking on any leadership development be clear about what leadership is in your organisation. What does leadership look like in your business? How does it feel to those colleagues around you? Why is it important for current and future success? What will it achieve? How will you measure the impact? The adage ‘begin with the end in mind’ is an excellent start point, yet I wonder how many people really truly take this outcome-based approach?

For those in organisations with responsibility for developing people, my challenge to you is to think about leadership development differently. Leaders are everywhere, we need to allow people to become the best versions of themselves and we need to look for new and creative ways to enable this to happen.

Oh, and if I’ve left you wondering about the lollipop moments, Drew Dudley shares a wonderful story about his lollipop moment in his Ted Talk, for me this sums up what leadership is all about. Let’s create more lollipop moments in the world of work and in our lives too.

If I’ve left you curious and you want to have a chat over a lollipop (yes, I have lots!) please get in touch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.