Some leaders seem natural. They appear to have that knack of engaging their people in any given situation. However, they are also few and far between. For most everyone else, getting good or better takes time and practice, preferably with some help from a good or better role model or coach.
However, your journey will be neither straightforward nor easy. It will involve discomfort, taking tough decisions and being the focus of attention in difficult situations. In fact, these are common experiences for most leaders and you’d be surprised how few do it well. Strangely, much of what leaders do is common sense though not common practice.
One reason for this is the very incohesive approach generally adopted for developing leaders. Learning by a kind of osmosis is typically the route. So I learn from your role model as my leader and I adopt or adapt the good/bad/indifferent bits as I think best. The trouble with this method is that where my boss is a really poor leader, what will I learn or emulate?
In my direct experience, what is even worse is whenyour leader models what I call ‘hamster-wheel’ leadership or management. This is a classic approach to leadership which involves a lot of hard effort, with little focus on direction and purpose, and often results in poor outcomes or impact. I’ve spent a lifetime encouraging first line, middle and senior managers to lift up their heads and focus on their direction. What is the point of the activity they engage in and what outcomes or impact are sought? Hamster-wheek leaders and managers typically drive and work hard, but generally not purposefully. It is as though hard work in itself is an adequate substitute for achieving best outcomes or impact.
This is, of course, not the case. Based on my personal experience, to improve as a leader and manager in the modern day I’d recommend pursuing two things: one, a good academic programme of leadership and management study. If you live in the UK, I’d recommend the study programmes available through the Chartered Management Institute.
The second thing you need is a personal growth plan that builds and enhances your key skills and competencies through practice. There is no substitute for leading, making mistakes and learning from them. What helps is a cultural climate that supports you in that practice, which facilitates your learning and offers you the opportunity to put your leadership learning to the test.
This latter point is absolutely essential. For decades, I have seen major UK central and local governmental investment in leadership development. I’ve written many, led and taught many, and seen so many fail through the lack of a supportive workplace environment and culture that encourages the application of learning. Any vague or even concrete stirrings of growth and understanding as a leader seem to be swiftly extinguished by a return to what is typically a ‘command and control’ culture where ‘Do as I say and not as I do’ still rules the roost.
So keeping focused on a few key competencies and developing your own personal growth plan are the alternative, sometimes ‘under the radar’, approach to ensuring you can growna dnd evelop as a kleader and manager. Drawing on my depth of experience of modern day leadership practice, I’d recommend laser focus on these four key competencies:
- Self-awareness and self-management are pivotal. Knowing yourself and how you respond to various situations enhances your ability to learn and becoming better as a leader always requires an openness to learning.
- Digital awareness and practice, which should enhance your communication and relationship management skills.
- Authenticity and emotional intelligence, which demonstrate to others what you value and care for, and how you will lead and manage.
- Resilience and self-confidence, especially necessary for helping you deal with the consequences of tough choices.
Focusing on these four core areas will give you a solid basis for developing and growing, and for becoming both a better you and a better leader and manager. I offer the following tips for building on that base:
- Learn to adopt the right leadership approach for you, your team and your organisation in each and every situation. The right approach is the one that gets the best out of you and your team in pursuing the outcomes and impact you wish to agcieve.
- Be flexible and agile in your approach. Try to anticipate future demands in your role and organisation and respond positively to other people’s ideas and approaches. Be prepared to volunteer for additional roles and responsibilities as therein lies excellent learning opportunities. I’d held a variety of local, regional and national positions by the time my local government service ended. Each one contributed to both a better me and a more rounded leadership approach.
- Develop your digital awareness and if it is not something you readily adapt to find a ocach or mentor that can help you. My son is 24 and a digital native. He doesn’t possess a watch, carry a wallet or use many traditional ways of doing business. He has been my greatest digital mentor and teacher and I am indebted to him for all that he has taught me and continues to teach me.
- Alongside growing digitally, develop your social awareness, self confidence and the support of others. The key here is to be unafraid to admit you don’t know and to seek help from people who might or do. This shows real authenticity, helps to grow trust, which is the glue that binds youe and your team, and builds proper rapport with everyone who matters in your sphere of influence. Remember, leaders have little real power. They achieve what they achieve largely through influence. Critical to these activities are active listening, listening more than talking, and demonstrating your willingness to serve.
- Practice your self-control.This helps you avoid negatively impacting yourself and your team. This also builds your emotional intelligence, a characteristic and competency that builds trust and encourages greater willingness in people to work with and alongside you.
- Regularly adjust your leadership style/approach/behaviour through seeking direct feedback. Be unafraid to ask how you are doing and then using that feedback to reflect on ways that you might improve. Be prepared to give people permission to feedback properly too. I’ve asked literally hundreds of leaders and managers how well they think they are doing and over 90% assume or imagine that they are doing well. The majority thought asking for this type of feedback was too risky. My counter is that surely it is more risky not to know how well you are doing and how you might improve?
As Lao Tse, an ancient Chinese philosopher put it:
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. Not so good when people obey and acclaim him. Worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves’.”
I urge you to aim for the latter. Pursue a course of academic study and, most of all, practice being a better you and a better leader each and every day. You set the boundary of your learning, so pursue it vigorously whenever the opportunity arises.
I wish you well in developing your leadership and management practice and, if I can be of any help, please just ask.