April 18, 2016
Leadership is not only a skill; it has become something of an industry. Everyone wants to be a good leader–whether at work, at home, or in social settings. Being a good leader means that your words will be respected, your ideas will be embraced, and you will be able to have a (hopefully) positive impact on other people’s lives. In the business world, strong leadership skills also translate into higher compensation. So it’s no wonder we all want to be better leaders. The real question is, “How do we go about doing so?” And that’s where the leadership “industry” comes in.
Throughout my career, I have read more books than I can count on the subject of leadership–each one attempting to encapsulate that magical set of skills, competencies, and behaviors that I can adopt into my psyche to make me a better leader. Some of these methods tend to focus on science–citing social and psychological studies that provide even the smallest of windows into the minds of effective leaders. Other theories tend to be more observational in nature–breaking down the traits and characteristics of some of the most successful leaders we all know and love. Other approaches range from using meditation to building more cognitive skills to just accepting that some people are “born leaders” while others simply are not.
While all of these attempts to make us better leaders certainly have some level of value and merit, there is one approach I tend to embrace more than any other, and it is one that seems to be written about far less frequently… self-awareness — the process of looking inside yourself.
I regularly facilitate workshops on a variety of business topics, ranging from product management to strategic planning to marketing. And although I do not teach the subject of leadership directly, the topic is peppered throughout just about every training program that I deliver. After all, how can you expect to be a successful product manager, strategist, or marketer if you are not also, at least to some extent, a good leader?
The way I approach this topic is actually almost embarrassingly simple; it is also incredibly effective. I simply ask the class what they like and what they dislike about the people who lead them. The answers almost inevitably come back the same:
What People Like:
What People Don’t Like:
Of course, these lists are far from comprehensive, but they do represent the answers that I most often hear. Whatever your lists may be, the trick is to have enough self-awareness to: 1) know when you are displaying those behaviors you don’t like, and 2) turn them into those behaviors you do like.
If that sounds overly simple, it’s probably because it is. Why, then, does it always seem to be such an “a-ha” moment whenever I teach this little trick to other people? The reason, I believe, is that approaching leadership from this direction can be downright uncomfortable.
Whenever we are forced to look inside ourselves — necessary to achieving self-awareness — we are very likely to find a few things that we’d rather not admit to. We all inherently know what makes a good leader, because we all inherently know how we, ourselves, like to be led. What we don’t always want to know is when we’re behaving with others differently from the way we want others to behave with us. So we may unknowingly shut that switch off, and, with it, we also shut off the ability to become great leaders.
Self-awareness is all about turning that switch back on. Know how you want your leaders to behave, and then allow yourself to see when you are or are not behaving that way yourself. It’s not always comfortable, but it is fairly easy. And when you train yourself to do it, you’ll never struggle with the topic of leadership again.