So often today one is confronted with all forms of business literature offering the quickest and simplest route to becoming a successful leader. From habits to traits, practices to techniques, they all offer the simple notion that by consuming the contents of the “scriptures” and possibly employing a few neat techniques offered by the author, you will be well on your way to becoming a successful leader.
Well I have come to understand that for the most part this is simply not true!
In fact I would offer that the path to becoming a successful leader is a very, very long road to be traveled and that it is in fact an art that is never fully mastered but rather one in which you can develop a satisfactory level of proficiency, supported by ongoing renewal and reinvestment simply to remain current and relevant.
Many believe that leaders are “born that way”. This notion does not sit comfortably with me and somehow feels too simplistic and exclusionary to carry any real weight. What one can be sure of though is that character plays an enormous role in the formation of a successful leader. In the words of a leading military strategist, Norman Schwarzkopf, “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But, if you must be without one, be without the strategy”.
From our earliest years our character is subtly molded and formed as life throws all manner of challenges and obstacles in front of us and it is how we respond to and act on these that forms a critical part of building our character and I offer that it is the sum of these lived experiences that will one day be a large determinant in whether you have the character to become a successful leader.
I have tried to think back for myself, what were these events? What were the earliest signs and clues? What was it about my character that lead me to a leadership role, and when did those leadership roles first present? Of course as one looks back on history we do so with a somewhat jaundiced view and our recollection is not perfect, so this may be a good time to talk to some people who played a role in your life at those early stages. How did they experience your character developing, what insights were they able to offer you? For me this was an illuminating experience as it was commonly fed back to me that whilst I was never the number one talent in any given field, I was never the star player nor the head of the class, but somehow I was always present, always committed and always trying harder than most. Determination and tenacity were words often used.
And so with this ongoing determination, tenacity and drive to succeed, slowly I was able to transform and hone my skill set to become the “star player” in selected fields. This did not come easily but rather took many hours of hard work and sacrifice. It was about at this time that the first signs emerged for me. The combination of a strong character and a competent skill set started resulting in people around me thrusting various leadership roles upon me and rather than shy away from them or feel intimidated by them I was able to embrace them and felt comfortable with them. And so my time as a leader was “Born”.
As I have traveled through life I have come to understand and appreciate that ‘Leadership” presents itself in many forms and in a multitude of places and that every instance calls for a somewhat different kind of leadership. A good leader will read and understand the context or environment they find themselves in for it is true that every unique set of circumstances will require a leader to employ a unique set of skills and that no single leader is best suited to every occasion. One only needs to look at every-day life for evidence of this; examples abound in sport, politics, business and virtually every other aspect of our lives.
Returning for a moment to the notion of “character”, I have come to understand that it is virtually impossible to separate your various leadership roles completely, that of corporate leader, parent, community leader, team leader etc. and it is therefore necessary that you are clear on what your value systems and beliefs are as these lie at the core of your character and will shine through in every leadership role you play. Over time I have also come to appreciate that these are my value systems and beliefs and that as leaders we must be careful to not impose these on others as this will only serve to stifle much needed diversity. The ability to read and comprehend other peoples value systems and beliefs will ultimately make you a far more skilled and dynamic leader.
Whilst it is certainly true that the vast volume of management and leadership literature available today can equip you and better prepare you for a leadership role, it is only the practice of this art that will hone your skills. As the British playwright and actor, Antony Jay once said that “The only real training for leadership is leadership”. In this “practice” it is vitally important to self-reflect and actively seek feedback on how you are being experienced as a leader and what impact you are making on the people and organizations around you. In this regard I have found that the most honest and valuable feedback almost always comes from those close to you who are able to be more honest and direct with you, a partner or spouse, a sibling or a parent.
Your ability to embrace this feedback and actively use it to harness and enhance your abilities will allow you to continue along the continuum of learning to lead. As I have gone through this process myself, time and time again, I have tried to identify what the most commonly sought-after skills or behavior traits are that individuals seek in a leader. The recurring themes appear to be Honesty, Authenticity, Motivating, Caring and Inspiring. All these of course point to your character and not that hard skill, learned in theory in a book but rather a set of soft skills, practiced over and over again and crafted and refined over a lifetime of leadership roles.
And so as I enter the next phase of my leadership learning, I am inspired by a quotation from Ralph Nader, an American politician and activist who said “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers”.
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