I began working with a new client recently, and the CEO of the company impressed me quite a bit during our first discussion. He spent much of our first conversation sharing some of the things he was learning as a leader in this business. I was intrigued by how eager he was to improve his leadership skills, even though he was already very accomplished. I compare this with some of the executives I have encountered during my career that stopped learning about leadership a long time ago. It's a pretty consistent truth, in my experience, that the leaders who focus on learning and getting better at their craft end up becoming those rare leaders who can transform any organization. That part is not surprising. The surprising part is the large number of leaders we have all encountered who lead today the same way they did decades ago. No matter what the team, the business or the challenge, they stick with the same "management style" they have always had. If you want to become a leader who can transform teams and organizations you have to be a learning leader. Here are a few ways to be sure that you are continuing your growth as a leader.
Attempt a breakthrough with a particularly challenging situation.
We all have them, that person or situation that we are not sure how to handle or dread dealing with. Often, it is easy to simply write certain individuals off and tell ourselves that we just aren't ever going to be able to work with people like that or with people who think that way. We have an opportunity though, to learn from these challenges. Even if we are working with a person who we believe is a terrible fit for our company and will need to leave it soon, we should go test our leadership mettle and see if we can't build or repair a relationship that doesn't feel like a natural fit. The exit will go smoother and we might even have a chance to positively impact how successful that person is in their next role. Learning to work with people who think differently and behave differently than we do is a skill that every leader could improve.
Go find leaders you respect and learn how they think.
Don't just ask them what they do, ask them how they think about what they do. If they are preparing for a meeting or a coaching conversation or to tackle an organizational change, ask them what they consider the most important things to focus on. Ask them what they think the critical success components are and how they keep them prioritized. Ask them how they plan to get commitment and full engagement of the team or the individual they are working with. Ask them what ideas they want from their people and how they plan to get those ideas. Ask them how they think the culture needs to change for the effort to be successful and how they will influence that change. In my experience, what really separates the great leaders from the others is how they think about these things. We can't always understand that just by watching what leaders do.
Read about failures too.
Poor leaders rarely get the opportunity to write a book about leadership. But plenty is written about them, especially if they cause a business to fail or end up being replaced because they aren't getting the job done. Make sure you read both success stories and leadership failures. We learn from our mistakes and sometimes we can learn from the mistakes of others as well. It's also important as you examine good leaders to be sure you are focusing on leaders who were able to sustain their results. Many managers can appear successful for a day or even a year or two, only the great ones can transform teams and make it last. Certainly there are volumes of information out there about how to become a great leader. And there are many different opinions on the subject. Read a lot about both the successes and the failures and compare that with your own leadership experience. People can write anything, make sure you are following the patterns that actually work.
One of the greatest ways to learn is to teach. It may sound counterintuitive but as we work to help others lead more effectively, we force ourselves to articulate how we approach leadership. Some leaders are "unconsciously competent" and they do things naturally or out of habit or because it just feels right. Teaching that to others makes them think analytically about what they do and why it has the effect on others that it does. It also causes you to raise your own bar. It is difficult to coach or teach someone to be a better leader and while not holding yourself to that same high standard.
There are many ways to learn about how to lead others, and even yourself, better. What's most important is that we keep learning. If we ever think that we have "arrived" as a great leader, we have simply started our downfall. The best leaders I have ever had a chance to work with and learn from seemed to believe they had only begun to learn about how to do this leadership thing well. While I believe they already knew a lot about how to do it well, their mindset ensured that they would continue to improve and that the impact they had on others would only increase. JFK had the line "leadership and learning are indispensible to each other" penned for the speech in Dallas that he never lived to deliver. And even though he never actually said the words, I think he had it right.
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