Leadership development is self-development. The quest for leadership is first an inner quest to discover who you are.– James Kouzes

When I started my career as a project manager at an American consulting firm, I was overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge and skills to learn in a short amount of time. Fortunately for me there was Danny C. As senior consultant, Danny was responsible for the business projects that I worked on.

Danny personified leadership excellence. He was open-minded but always prepared to take a tough decision. He gave clear direction when I needed it and allowed me creative freedom when I craved it. Throughout our first 6 month project together, he never failed to introduce me to important customers when they visited the office – a privilege usually reserved for more senior people. He shared credit generously.

As the project progressed, Danny gave me increasing levels of responsibility. For example, when the team was expanded to include content creation and multimedia specialists, Danny let me manage them. He held me accountable for overall quality and deadlines but let me explore possibilities and test alternatives. The entire team worked hard to meet deadlines but had fun doing so.

Finally, the project was completed, Danny and I flew to the customer’s headquarters to present the results. Although I was the most junior person in the room by at least a decade, I will never forget the pride I felt in being shown respect for a job well done.

Years later, I visited the firm and spoke with several new associates. I recalled my experiences with Danny. Most amazing was that each and every person I spoke with had similar experiences working with Danny. That is the true mark of excellent leadership: Danny made each of us feel as if we were the most special person in the world, ready and eager to give our best. And we did, all of us!

First Line Leaders

First line leaders are the brave people on the front lines of organizational leadership. Their titles vary—they may be team leader, project manager, or department head. What they have in common is that they are called upon day in and day out to lead a team. Productivity, satisfaction and ultimately the team’s success are dependent on their efforts, for there is no one to fall back on if a first line leader fails. They tend to lead by example while getting the job done. Most first line leaders are caring people who work with their hearts and hands to make a difference for their team and their organization.

Many of us have been fortunate to have known an excellent first line leader at some point in our lives. Maybe the person was one of our parents, a favorite teacher or professor, or perhaps a supervisor at work. These exceptional leaders were able to motivate us to give our very best. Under their tutelage, we worked hard not only for ourselves but also because we wanted to please them. We developed our skills and grew while delivering the results needed.

Where do these excellent leaders come from? The answer is they are all around us. Each of us has the potential to become an excellent leader if we are willing to put in the time, effort, and discipline required to get there. Leaders are made, not born. Smart organizations nurture their leaders on their path to excellence. Investment in first line leadership delivers enormous returns in terms of team productivity, motivation and satisfaction.

Further Reading

Goldsmith, Marshall, John Baldoni & Sarah McArthur (Eds.) The AMA Handbook of Leadership. New York: AMACOM, 2010.

Photo credit: Charles Knowles