In our last post, we talked about how to tell if someone is a leader. We also discussed that leaders are very different from managers. Most importantly, we discussed that it is possible for someone to be both a leader and a manager at the same time. The ability to lead is often one of the differentiators between great managers and those who struggle. Many people who achieve management roles aspire to be great leaders, but we don’t have to look very far to find examples of people placed in management positions (often as a result of being great individual contributors) who were completely unable to lead. Since we all want to avoid this fate, the question we have to ask is what can we do to better prepare ourselves to lead?
The first step to becoming a better leader is recognizing that leadership is about moving teams, groups, and organizations towards some performance goals (Hogan & Kaiser, 2005). But what we have to remember is that those outcomes don’t just happen as a result of barking instructions setting objectives. Successful leadership is about exhibiting behaviors that not only inspire, but also enable. These behaviors result from a particular set of skills that must be learned, practiced, and developed. More importantly they must be continually refined based on the situation and the particular talents of the leader in question. But where does one start? How does one begin the leadership journey to grow these skills? To be honest, there are many different approaches to that.
One of the most common starting points for developing leadership skills is through formal training. This can include anything from corporately sponsored multi-year professional development programs; to half-day pep rallies that leave participants excited, but maybe not that well informed. Obviously the quality of these approaches can vary significantly. For a variety of reasons, such as costs and time commitments, many people driving their own leadership development end up in the half-day flavor of formal training. As we stated above, however, those approaches don’t often get us the most bang for the buck. As such we don’t really recommend investing in those unless they are closely paired with other activities or part of a broader leadership development program.
One of the other categories of self-driven leadership development is finding a mentor who can teach you how to be a good leader. Most people consider a mentor someone that they know personally that they can converse with about how they should and should not do in certain situations. The trick with this approach is that finding a mentor with the right skills and experience, and who has the time to work with you, this can be challenging. Most of those we would want to learn from are already very busy being leaders. Some people address this issue by finding a virtual mentor. For example there are several people I know who point to leadership guru Stephen Covey as a mentor even though they never met him. They just read as much of his work and they can and try to apply his teachings in as many different ways as possible. Not an ideal substitute for a true mentor, but it does lead us into our third and final category of leadership self-development.
Perhaps the simplest way to describe this last category would be something like independent leadership study. This means going out and consuming as much information as you can about the topic. This approach is perhaps the most consistent among great leaders. To be honest I’ve known and studied quite a few leaders of the course of my career, and the single most common denominator seems to be a veracious thirst for knowledge. Not just about leadership per say, but about any and every topic that they could apply to the teams they are trying to lead. So if you want to learn to be a leader you have to first learn to want to always know more. Once you do that you’ll be well on your way. Of course then you’ll need to learn how to teach others to lead, but we’ll talk about that next time.
Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R. B. (2005). What we know about leadership. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 169–180.
Related Benedictine Programs
If you’re interested in learning more about what it takes to be a good leader check out Benedictine’s Management and Organizational Behavior program, which focuses on addressing the human side of business including leadership strategies and skills. Benedictine University also offers Bachelors degree programs. To learn how an online degree from Benedictine can help you hone your leadership skills talk to a Program Manager today.
About the Author
Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with seventeen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture, and Hewlett-Packard.