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Why Good Leadership Matters in the Great Resignation

By Randy Hall

It seems the great resignation is indeed a possibility. 40% of people, the highest number recorded, are thinking of leaving their jobs this year. And they are pointing to a lot of different reasons for it, like collective burnout and a desire to work more flexible hours. Many had time off during the pandemic and used it to reevaluate their lives and their success. There’s no shortage of guesses as to what’s causing it and the truth likely is that a number of factors can lead us to consider looking for a new job. Let's take a look at how a great leadership development plan can help companies overcome.

Companies are looking for ways to prevent resignations

No matter the cause, resignations are happening in record numbers. Naturally, companies are looking for ways to deal with these departures. They are offering additional time off in the form of “reset days” rushing to institute all kinds of wellness programs to help employees reduce stress and recharge. I’m not sure if anyone is looking at the quality of the leaders within the business yet. I hope they are seen as a way to retain, engage, and support employees. If not, we are missing the boat. Good leaders are a great resource for retaining, engaging, and supporting employees.

In fact, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the number one influence on whether or not an employee is committed and engaged?
  2. What is the number one reason a person leaves an organization?
  3. What has the most influence on your happiness and stress at work?

If you answered, “the manager,” then you already get this.

Leadership’s Role in the Great Resignation

Here’s a quote from a Harvard Business Review article: “What’s the one factor that most affects how satisfied, engaged, and committed you are at work?” All our research over the years points to one answer, found in the question, “Who is your immediate supervisor?” That article was written in 2012, but the conclusion hasn’t changed.

Corporate programs won’t fix employee happiness, well being, engagement, productivity, or retention. Good leaders and managers, though, will. In fact, good leaders and managers will not only fix it but secure high levels of these things for the future as well.

No corporate program will make up for a bad boss. And, great bosses will have engaged teams whether or not the company has a wellness program. A really good leader actually becomes a wellness program for their team.

Return to Work Scenarios

Let’s think about the return to work scenarios that many organizations are dealing with at the moment. Some companies are saying that everyone has to come back to work immediately. Others are saying that everyone can work from home for the foreseeable future. The best situation, though, is one where companies are saying managers should work with their teams. They should evaluate their work, culture, and communication processes. Then, they should come up with a solution that meets the needs of the business and the team going forward. Success will then come as they work together on a transition plan to make that happen.

Most companies won’t do that. They don’t trust their managers enough to make those calls and make them well. In fact, most companies probably shouldn’t trust their managers that much. Many of them may not have developed the skills to have that kind of collaborative discussion and find good solutions. But now, instead of developing better leaders inside the company, they are compensating for poor managers by instituting a one-size-fits-all policy. This will result in the loss of some great employees; If you believe in the great resignation, quite a few of them.

Countering the great resignation doesn’t have to be hard

If you have ever worked for a great leader, how would you describe the team? What would you say about a team with a bad boss? Clearly the risk of 40% of a team leaving or being unhappy is less likely when a great leader is substituted for a bad boss.

We’re not dealing with rocket science here. We know that great leaders throughout an organization build a strong culture. They have fully engaged team members and get better results. As a result hey are more profitable, and set the business up for sustained growth and success.

So why do most companies focus on policies, programs, or initiatives more than they do on leader development? Let’s look at some reasons.

Why companies focus on policies over good leadership

Leadership development plan over corporate policy
1. They don’t know how

Ask most senior leaders how to develop better managers in their business and they will not have a great answer. Either they feel like leaders are born rather than made, that it’s too individual of a thing, or that there is no way to consistently teach leaders how to be better at it.

2. They find control simpler

If we can make all of the decisions in a small group at the top of the organization, it definitely feels easier. We can put HR, finance, and a few senior leaders in a room and come up with a wellness program we feel good about and that we can afford. In fact, we can do this in a relatively short period of time. Then we can just tell all the managers to go execute the program. That’s easier and less complex than developing better managers.

3. Speed

Designing and announcing a program is far faster than developing better leaders throughout an organization. It’s also an event that can get an immediate lift and some instant goodwill. On the other hand, a great leadership development plan takes time.

In reality it’s hard to dispute any of these reasons. They are all real challenges and it’s easy to see why wellness programs and other well-intentioned initiatives get announced. And it’s not that any of those things are bad for companies to do. It’s just that none of them address the real truth about bad bosses. No program will make up for one.

Initiatives without leadership development plans prove ineffective

If these companies are implementing programs and initiatives along with leadership development plans, it’s a huge sustainable step in the right direction. But, what if they are announcing programs but doing nothing to improve the quality of leaders throughout the organization? In that case they will lose much of the benefit that a company-wide initiative might have gained. Many of their people will still be miserable and either disengaged, think about leaving, or both.

Disengaged people who stay, by the way, are more detrimental to an organization’s success than disengaged people who leave. If you have a lot of disengaged people, them leaving is not the problem, disengagement is the problem. Considering managers account for around 70% of the variance in employee engagement, there is no bigger influence on employee engagement.

So, given the challenges around developing better leaders and managers, the benefits of a fully engaged group of employees, and the destructive nature of bad bosses or supervisors inside any business regardless of size, what should organizations do?

Have a clear opinion of what a good leadership development plan looks like

First, let’s not use “gets business results” or “grows the business” as the only measurement of great leadership. The world is full of managers that get stellar short-term results. Ultimately, those come crashing down because they create a disengaged, miserable team along the way. So, an effective opinion of leadership also includes the how. Managers are caretakers of the leading indicators of long-term success in your business. If they are only focused on short-term numeric metrics, be ready for a team that will soon burnout, quit, or disengage.

This opinion on leadership does not need to be complex. Yes, there is a lot underneath how we help people pursue it in any organization, but when I go into a business and find that the first 5 managers I talk to have differing views of what good looks like relative to leadership in their company, I know already that this business just hopes they have good leaders. They didn’t make having good leaders a process that they could execute.

Still, me saying good leadership doesn’t have to be complex and telling you that you should have it are not as helpful as they could be by themselves. So, let me share an example with you. Here’s a sample of what a good picture of leadership might look like in an organization focused on it.

What we insist on and are committed to as leaders in our organization

Anyone who supervises, manages, leads, or directs others in the business will be aggressively pursuing these ideals. They will be developing their ability to lead this way constantly, and will be measured based on their consistent ability to do the following:

Create a team culture represented by accountability, inclusiveness, collaboration, and support. 

This means that people on their team will feel heard, that everyone will have a voice, that decisions will be made with the well being of their team in mind, and that managers will support each person as they work to become their best. It also means that their team members will show up proactively focused on solutions, possibilities, and contributions rather than problems, roadblocks, and historical perceptions

Build and support a fully engaged team

This team is energetic, focused and eager to contribute their best to the team and the future of the business. Surveys and measurement tools that are designed to reflect the level of engagement on a team consistently come back with improving or excellent scores. And, this team believes they work for a fair, supportive, and thoughtful manager.

Coach team members consistently and effectively

A manager will understand and can articulate the goals, strengths, and capabilities of each team member. He or she is supporting each person consistently in the pursuit of their full potential. This leads to every team member having a self-driven development plan and working towards their own definition of greater success. Every team member will receive regularly scheduled coaching conversations that are focused on their growth, opportunities, and development. These team members will know what they do exceptionally well and what they are valued for, in addition to the areas that they would like to continue to improve.

Recruit, hire, and develop amazing employees

Managers constantly will be searching for people who will continue to help create the kind of culture they are committed to. And, they will look for people who believe in the kind of growth that they want to achieve and for individuals who will make them better not simply do the work. These managers will recruit team members not only when there is an opening, but as a regular approach to becoming the best possible team and building the best future.

Achieve consistently improving results through their incredible people

Here managers will focus a fulfilled, energized, engaged team toward a set of outcomes that help the business grow, improve, and succeed. They will leverage the strengths, passions, and motivation of the people to achieve greater success. Such managers will advocate for serving customers and competing in the marketplace in ways others want to emulate. They will approach this challenge with interest, excitement, and integrity. In turn, this will show up in how their customers trust them and choose to do business with them in bigger ways and with increasing frequency.

Your definition of good leadership

Your definition of good leadership in your organization may look different. It may be longer or shorter or have different areas of focus. That’s normal, expected, and understandable. If you do not have one though, or if it is not detailed enough to help managers understand what great looks like and how they might even be measured against their progress towards it, then you do not have a foundational element that is essential for leadership development. In that case, no managers in your organization are working toward a well-defined goal as a leader. They are simply showing up and trying to do their best, we hope, in ways that they think might get them better outcomes. It’s a recipe for mediocrity at best.

Your definition doesn’t have to be perfect. You can continue to change it, update it, and shift it over time. We do that all the time with business strategies, customer-facing initiatives, and organizational structure. Leader development is no different, and it is just as important as any of those things.

Your Business Strategy and Opportunities

Most businesses wouldn’t operate without a business strategy of some sort. Even smaller businesses need strategy to be successful. But, most businesses do not have a leader development strategy, even when good leaders are arguably more essential to their future than the business strategy is.

There is a lot to do after building this kind of definition of good leadership in your business. The definition itself should be something that is collaborative, that everyone has a voice in, and that is done with the people in the business rather than to them. But, it’s this beginning of a series of opportunities to build great leaders in your business that can create a better future. You will find it will support teams of fulfilled, happy, engaged team members who can execute sound business strategy more effectively.

If you haven’t started, if you haven’t identified a destination, then you cannot make progress toward it.


Create the initiatives that you think will keep your best people and support the employees in your business. But also take the first step to developing great leaders in your business. Down the road you won’t have to fix the problem of employee engagement or retention. You will have already built the business that people want to come to and be part of.

If I can ever help as you define great leadership in your business or support the leaders who are pursuing that definition, just let me know.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.

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