A big income or job title does not magically confer leadership, neither does elected office or a governance appointment. Responding to and creating change is the work of leaders. Social complexity, power dynamics, emerging knowledge, and technology combined with urgent needs create a context where effective leadership is an increasingly difficult assignment.
Leadership development, from unskilled to masterful, reflects a process of maturation. Anyone can get “stuck” at any time. It’s also true some people lead better in some situations than others. However, a fast way forward is an explicit checklist to review as you lead.
Here are seven gentle reminders to do (along with a bit of the counter-factual don’t) that will help you be more effective.
1. Specify Clear Purpose(s).
Defining purpose is integrally linked with setting direction. It is the why of where we are going. Big ideas like excellence, capacity, quality of life, and performance can be manipulated and interpreted in many ways. Be crystal clear about your intended outcomes. Specify what result(s) you are after and how success is defined. This enables others to engage in shared work, too. Don’t offer a confused agenda. It’s problematic and will continue to plague the work. Beware of substituting a declared purpose, however compelling, for strategy. They’re not interchangeable.
2. Seek Visual Acuity.
Constant discovery is an ally. Asking questions and uncovering perspective, facts, and experiences are essential to correcting and improving your sight. The people and organizations that are most “dangerous” are those that insist on being blind about their blind spots. Most political contexts encourage people to share just the “story” you want to hear. Don’t pursue “ blind insistence.” Most of us want to be “right” and like our own (or other) mental models that affirm. Without exception, though, we all have issues or items we can’t see…We also may have some we don’t want to see. Co-option is a common way to ensure cover and conformity.
3. Keep Open Ears (Heart & Mind).
Listening skills are vital to a capable leader. Be sure you listen – inside and outside the organization, committee or task force. Use your ears, heart and mind in listening. Seek out ethical, experienced people who are willing to be candid with you. Any group you lead has foibles, flaws, preferences, comforts and agendas. Talent is comprised of competencies and attributes. Assemble the best you can on both dimensions. Tolerating unethical behavior is a huge error – even great skills never compensate for it. Don’t allow deafness to be an elective disability. Choosing not to hear critique, alternative view point, or considering better, different expertise is foolish.
4. Choose Risks.
Any decision has risk to it. Calculated and intentional risk is essential to creating change. Understand who is helped and hurt by your choices and why. Take responsibility for movement and progress. Site an ambitious new possibility and articulate its benefits. Choose improvement and change. Don’t avoid decisions. It’s irresponsible. Keeping the status quo is inconsistent with leading.
5. Engage Your Conscience.
Leaders interact in a social context. This means they are both in front of and behind others. Humans, like most animals, instinctively prefer the “cover” of a group. Far too often being “in” is better than out – even when “in” is wrong. Use a moral compass that serves the common good. Persuade others why self interest is just far too small an agenda. Be conscious of your own motives and that of others. Don’t ignore values like justice, candor, integrity, compassion and sustainability. Social conformity is how political cultures thrive and block change. It’s why bullying and corruption are far too common.
6. Acknowledge Errors.
Most days most people make errors. They can be simple and unintended or not. Whether a poor word choice, the tone of voice, a decision about strategy, resource allocation, or staff selection — we all make errors. Assumptions get all of us in “trouble.” Although slightly different, misunderstandings can happen easily. Build reflective skills to recognize and quickly correct errors. Don’t avoid disclosure and authentic apologies. They are important to credibility. Sharing your vulnerabilities and flaws are critical to trust.
7. Pursue Learning Daily.
Our own willingness to learn (and change) affects the potential to lead others. Learning is a high standard. Human development requires a complex chain from new awareness, to knowledge, skills and different actions. Identify your own “learning agenda,” then pursue it with vigor. Without explicit attention and commitment, learning won’t happen. Routinely seek constructive feedback from “critical” friends and colleagues. Be sure there are people near you who care enough (about you/your work) to provide far more than praise. Don’t let current habits and ego prevail. You’re not growing if you’re not learning.
Leading change isn’t easy.
Start this year with a handy to-do checklist and beware of the don’ts!
-Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also a W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. For more, see: www.pwkinc.com