Needless to say, there is no simple formula to becoming a great leader. It requires a combination of strong technical skills and advanced behavioral competencies, grounded in a solid set of core values and emotional intelligence. In my work with leaders, though, I have discovered few simple steps that can help enhance the proficiency of any leader. While simple in concept, they require practice if they are to become new habits and core elements of a leader’s behavioral profile.
- Continuously seek to become more self-aware.
We all walk through life with patterns of behavior formed out of our experiences. Those patterns impact the people around us, those with whom we work and those we lead, in various ways that we may not fully or always comprehend. And some of those patterns may not serve us well or be indicative of the way we intend to function as a teammate and leader.Generative growth as a person and a leader starts with an honest and compassionate (with ourselves) understanding of who we are: our values, sense of purpose, core strengths, mental models and patterns of behavior. The most basic step to become a stronger leader is to engage in practices designed to enhance one’s level of self-awareness.Take time for regular self-reflection, stepping outside of yourself to notice your patterned responses and contemplate the triggers and emotions underlying those behavioral patterns. Seek feedback from others periodically in a spirit of confident humility: confident enough not to be wounded when receiving difficult feedback; humble enough to embrace the gift of feedback as an opportunity for growth. Recognize that we all have blind spots and a natural tendency to discount unfavorable feedback to protect our fragile self-image and seek to overcome that tendency. Consider using one of the well-established leadership assessment tools to help compile a more complete picture of your leadership tendencies and understand their impact on others.
The more you know about who you are, the more intentional you can be as you see to grow and increase your effectiveness.
- Engage in lifelong learning and practices for personal growth and self-care.
Strong leaders take deliberate steps to learn and grow as a continuous habit. Acting on insights from their practice at self-awareness, they work to become more mindful about their behavior and build new habits through intentional practice. They remain constantly curious, seeking out information that challenges and expands both their technical skills and their behavioral competencies. They “network” in the very best sense of that term, maintain and expanding connections with others whose point of view and insights are different from their own. They are disciplined around the struggle for work-life balance, recognizing that their leadership effectiveness is directly correlated to their physical, spiritual and emotional well-being.
- Educate others about you.
While leaders who invest in personal growth can and do build new leadership “muscle,” it is not healthy nor realistic to expect radical change in one’s profile. For example, a lifelong introvert is not likely to become a gregarious extrovert, but she can become proficient, through practice, at being effective in those moments and settings where her presence is important. It is also undesirable to try and “put on” leadership behaviors that are not reflective of your authentic self. Authenticity, a sense of personal and professional integrity, is key to building trust, the foundation of great leadership.One of the most impactful things leaders can do, then, is educate others about themselves, teaching others how to communicate and work with them most effectively. It enables the leader to close the gap between the interpretations others attach to her behavior and the leader’s true intentions. It creates greater understanding and appreciation for differences in style that without that knowledge can be misinterpreted and cause unproductive conflict. For example, the leader whose natural style is more deliberate and analytical can frustrate the more urgent, intuitive person on the team. With greater understanding of those differences, the two can come to appreciate how those differences complement and strengthen one another and can adopt habits to manage those differences more productively. One of the more helpful statements a leader can make to those with whom she works is “One of the things I know about myself is…..”
- Avoid making up stories; seek first to understand.
All of us have developed mental models that help us efficiently make sense out of the thousands of pieces of data we take in each day. For the most part those models work well for us but there is a danger if those models become an impediment to seeing others, or seeing situations, with full understanding. Working in health care, I see this all the time in my practice. “You know how physicians/hospitals/payors/nurses/administrators are.” When we engage with others those assumptions form our response, limiting the possibilities in ways that may preclude finding a productive path forward.It is a very human tendency but one that strong leaders learn to temper. Rather than walking through life on autopilot, strong leaders seek first to understand. They resist the tendency to make up stories about others but engage in inquiry, genuinely, to try and see the world through the lens of another.
- Become skillful at constructive conflict and crucial conversations.
Finally, and closely related to #4, strong leaders are proficient at engaging in difficult conversations around important and highly charged topics. They don’t avoid them or put them off. They recognize that some of their most important work and impactful decisions carry with them significant personal and emotional stakes. They reject the notion that they must choose between either maintaining a relationship or confronting a tough issue.Instead, they become skillful at engaging others in those tough conversations in a way that promotes dialogue and the collaborative pursuit of a respectful outcome. They create a safe space for the dialogue, sharing their facts, feelings and beliefs, and inviting others to do the same. They affirm their commitment to the other parties and to strengthening the relationship, not by avoiding a tough issue but by respectfully working to get to the heart of the disagreement in order to find a positive path forward.
The challenge of leadership in contemporary settings is profound but with adoption of these small but profound practices leaders can become stronger and more effective in meeting that challenge. MEDI Leadership has helped numerous clients build demonstrated proficiency in these new behaviors through our individual and team coaching programs. Let us know if you would like to learn more.