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VIEWPOINT: Teaching your team to swim: a lesson in leadership

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“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.While this sounds like a commendable ambition, it is not always easy in practice. ”

Great leadership means growing past the comfort of your technical skills

Activist Ralph Nader once said: “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” While this sounds like a commendable ambition, it is not always easy in practice.

Consider Jeff, who is an excellent accountant. His strong technical ability leads him quickly up the corporate ladder, resulting in a well-deserved promotion. However, he is promoted straight into a managerial position and is now expected to lead a team. While Jeff is brilliant in his field, he is accustomed to work alone and finds it difficult to delegate or trust others with tasks.

I often see this scenario playing out in the field of finance. We know that technical excellence does not automatically translate into being a great leader. More is required – clear, compelling communication skills and the ability to empower others. Not allowing or enabling those around you to succeed is to fail as a leader.

Swimming legend Adrian Moorhouse won the 100 m breaststroke at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and was the record holder in this item for many years thereafter. Following his retirement he was faced with the insecurity of his identity being tied up in doing what he used to do best – professional swimming. One day he came across a photo of himself sitting at the edge of the pool with his coach beside him. His nostalgia turned to revelation as he realised that to move forward, he needed to transform himself from swimmer into coach. He has since moved on to a successful career in the business world as managing director of a consultancy that helps individuals and teams reach their full potential.

“I’ve learnt a lot personally going from being an individual sports performer to being a leader,” says Moorhouse. “I think some managers start off being really good at what they do and then get promoted to team leader and if they’re not careful they end up trying to spray-paint everybody with their way of doing things. You have to understand different characters’ personalities and how to get the best out of them. My coach couldn’t swim but he enabled others to be Olympic and world champions. It was all about working together to get the best out of each other.”

I am increasingly learning this lesson in my own job – that it is the duty and privilege of those in leadership positions to make it their personal ambition to develop and train others. As celebrated American businessman Jack Welch said: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

Brett Tromp CA(SA) is CFO of Discovery Life