When we talk about adaptability and Values Based Leadership, we often say “meet people where they are.” It means diagnosing their values, their style, their needs, and their emotions, and connecting with them in a way that is effective for them. (Some call it “the platinum rule.”)  It’s easy to get bent out of shape when someone else doesn’t meet our expectations, or doesn’t operate the way we do—but if you want to be effective as a leader, you have to be flexible to be effective.

This idea also applies to developing other leaders.  The longer we are in leadership roles, the more important it is to develop those who come behind us—the young leaders who will ultimately take our place and ensure that leadership becomes more than just a title, but becomes a choice others are equipped to make.

When we meet them where they are, we bring the kind of feedback, coaching, and mentoring that fits their role and experience.  In school, they are teaching my kids about how to lead at their level—meeting my 9 and 6 year old where they are—who then come home and tell me “Daddy, when you yell, you’re not being a good leader.”  I respond by yelling louder, because clearly they didn’t hear me the first time and have forgotten that this is not a democracy.

One of the best books I’ve found for straightforward leadership development is The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner.  I met Dr. Kouzes a few weeks ago and have to say the man is one of the most genuine and authentic people you could meet.  He knows a lot about developing leaders, and what effective leadership looks like in the really-real world.  Many academics haven’t led—but Jim has led his own and other organizations, and has done research with literally thousands and thousands of participants.  He knows what works.

The Kouzes and Posner model is built on transformational leadership theories, which have been proven to work in multiple settings, with many different types of people, under many different conditions. While no leadership theory is a silver bullet, their model comes close.

But in order to meet people where they are, you need multiple approaches.  For some, a model like Blanchard’s Situational Leadership II is the right approach, especially when it comes to developing task competencies.  For others, learning to look in the mirror is incredibly important, making a book like the Arbinger Institutes’ Leadership and Self-Deception a great tool (it’s one of the scariest books I’ve ever read—it’s tough medicine to take).

Meeting people where they are is about giving others what they need, when they need it.  I might not use Leadership and Self Deception with a new leader, but I would definitely use The Leadership Challenge. You may always use feedback with new leaders, but you might start with a mentor and move on to a coach as they grow.

The most important lesson when it comes to developing leaders is to use what works.  Experiment with different approaches, try different things out, and when it works, go with it.  When it stops working, move on to something else.   As people grow, their needs change.  How we support their development should as well.


Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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