The old saw that “leaders are born, not made,” is bunk. Leadership skills can be learned. Were this not true, organizations wouldn’t be spending millions of dollars on leadership training. Personally, I believe almost anyone can become a better leader – if they’re willing to make a commitment, invest the time, and take action. Here are three ways to take your leadership practice to the next level:
Find a mentor.
Or two. Or more. Think about the people you know who you admire as leaders. Maybe you know someone who’s got a knack for inspiring others. Or someone who is great at seeing the big picture, or someone who runs a darn good meeting. Who do you know who has the ability to pull people together quickly to get something done? Who do you know who demonstrates grace under fire? These people might be in your organization (one might even be your own boss!) or they might be somewhere else – perhaps that volunteer group you joined.
Approach them and ask if you can pick their brain. Make it formal or informal, and make sure you’re creating a win/win situation (there needs to be something in it for them, too). I once asked a colleague I admire if I could take him to lunch once a month (my treat!) in exchange for letting me pick his brain on some things he does far better than me. He agreed, but changed the terms – he would get to pick my brain as well. We changed the contract; we split the checks.
Honestly, I can’t remember ever being turned down by someone when I asked for some mentoring. And come to think of it, I haven’t received much mentoring when I haven’t asked for it. So look around – who do you know that could teach you a thing or two if you asked?
I once put together a leadership academy for a group of some of the brightest and best professionals in their field. These folks were at the top of their game, and they’d been put into positions of leadership over other quite talented people. Early on in the program, I asked them which books they had read about leadership or management (or anything similar) that had helped them understand their role. Not one hand was raised. None. They were so focused on learning their profession they had never taken the time to read something outside the box.
Don’t make that mistake. Get some books on leadership and start reading. Read two or three a year. Get them as books on tape if you like – but start reading. I’ll post some of my favorites in another post. Until then, get thee to a bookstore and pick one.
Keep a journal
Find a way to journal several times a week. It doesn’t have to be elegant – a simple notebook from the office supply store will do. Or journal on your computer. Reflect on what you’re doing, what you’re learning from your mentor, what you’re learning from what you read, and how you might apply it to your own leadership practice. One format I find useful is called the “experiential learning model,” which shows how you can learn from your experience. There are four steps: have an experience, and then ask yourself three questions: What happened? So what? Now what?
Have an experience. I ran a staff meeting today. What happened? We got way off track, and people were frustrated. So what? When staff meetings go off track, we’ve wasted everyone’s time and probably had a negative impact on morale. Now what? Maybe I can talk with Jim about how he runs his meetings – they seem to go well. I could sign up for an Effective Meetings workshop. I could go to amazon.com and find a book or two on how to lead more effective meetings.
I believe that your leadership practice is something like a video game – there’s always another level you can achieve. You can do it, if you make the commitment, make the time, and take action.