Why every employee, not just those at the helm, should have leadership skills

Some companies are reaping the rewards of embedding such training throughout their teams. Morgan Burn says it is time for others to follow suit

In a fast-paced and complex business environment, leadership skills are no longer a luxury reserved for those at the helm of a company. They are essential competencies that every employee should possess, regardless of their job role or title. 

While a handful of companies are beginning to understand the benefits of embedding leadership skills throughout their teams, others have been slower to adopt such learning and development.  

But, when businesses that equip all their employees with such competencies are better poised for success, we must encourage such development across all companies.

A shift in perspective

Historically, leadership programmes have followed a talent development structure that focuses on three levels: people who want to be managers, people who are managers and then senior management. You may notice the infamous titles such as: Ignite, Aspire and Evolve – or titles to that effect.

But the skills that are included in these programmes widely benefit all employees. Moreover, this approach, though pragmatic in the past, fails to appreciate the latent leadership potential in subject matter experts and individual contributors. 

These professionals may not desire a managerial title or role but play a pivotal role in and out of a business. They may be internal experts to whom colleagues frequently turn. They may be customer-facing specialists able to solve problems or queries where others cannot.  

Also, they may play a central role in meetings, projects and strategic initiatives. 

Reflecting this, the terminology around leadership is evolving. No longer is it just about the position an employee holds. It is about the behaviours they exhibit such as growth mindset, resilience and critical thinking, and the values they bring.

Anyone can be a leader, no matter their seniority. Such people may be a thought leader, a solution leader or leader in communication. There is an increasing acceptance that employees do not need a managerial role to be the best version of themselves and progress in their careers.

The driving forces

Several factors are driving this change and the need for more wholesale leadership training across a company. 

First, employee-driven demand. The modern workforce, through platforms like LinkedIn, is voicing the need for personal development beyond traditional managerial training.

Second, employee recognition. Businesses are beginning to understand the value of holistic employee development. What is a business's offer to non-managerial employees who still play a leadership role in their job? L&D managers are now pushing for programmes that are accessible to everyone, with a focus on skills enhancement and behaviour-driven training.

Third, networking and collaboration. In global businesses, cross-functional collaboration is crucial. When leadership skills are widespread, there is better communication, understanding of challenges across departments and sharing of best practices. This approach fosters a culture where individual contributors influence stakeholders and drive change.

Who benefits?

Put simply, everyone benefits.

From employees keen on continuous improvement to those in different departments, especially in project roles that do not involve direct people management, all can become better versions of themselves.

These individuals are often more focused on their contribution than climbing the managerial ladder but must still lead, influence and drive initiatives.

For businesses, investing in leadership training unlocks many benefits. Those companies which have implemented such training are seeing increasing engagement scores and better retention.

Employees feel more valued and are often more engaged. Better engaged employees perform better. With shared leadership values and skills, cross-departmental collaboration becomes seamless. Such collaboration is especially crucial in global businesses where understanding challenges and sharing best practices can make a significant difference.

With a shift in leadership and management understanding, businesses can better define roles, expectations and skill requirements. For instance, while management may align more with specific roles and responsibilities, leadership is a more transformational behaviour.

What must businesses do? 

While some businesses are beginning to recognise this shift and are realising the benefits, others are yet to understand and adopt such practice even though reserving development for people with managerial ambition can demotivate a firm’s wider talent pool.

In conclusion, leadership is not just a title. It is a mindset, a set of behaviours, and a skill set that every employee can and should possess. 

Companies that recognise this are not only investing in their people but also setting themselves up for business success in the future. 

Morgan Burn is principal consultant at OnTrack International