It’s tempting to think of leadership as a mysterious alchemy, a special trait possessed only by the lucky few.
While it’s true that leadership evolves from a variety of soft skills that can be hard to define, it’s also true that leadership is a craft anyone can learn and perfect.
In Learning Leadership: The Five Fundamentals of Becoming an Exemplary Leader, James Kouzes and Barry Posner describe some of the ingredients in the secret sauce of leadership.
“Leaders can differ in lots of personal ways, but exemplary leaders universally engage in very similar practices,” they write.
1. Believe in yourself
Self-confidence, courage, authenticity – whatever you call it, leaders must possess a certain poise. Belief in yourself starts with knowing yourself, Kouzes and Posner write.
Before anything and everything else, they advise, develop learning skills. Learning means leaving your comfort zone, so take on challenging, “stretch assignments.” And forget about playing to your strengths: Work on your weaknesses, too.
Start by imitating great leaders; practice their ways and learn from them. When you start to feel uncomfortable mimicking others, move to the next stage, experimenting with different managerial styles that align with your leadership beliefs and values.
Gradually, you’ll develop an “authentic” leadership style of your own. It will come from your unique individuality – your background, experiences, values and beliefs.
2. Communicate clearly
Define your values and principled beliefs so you can communicate them clearly. People trust and follow leaders whose beliefs they understand.
Learn to serve others and to enlist others’ support. No leader does anything remarkable alone. You cannot lead without followers. Recognize your employees’ good work and make sure your vision of the future resonates with them. Understand what your people want, and show them how your vision and shared purpose align. Help people understand “what’s in it for them.”
3. Challenge yourself
You can’t excel by staying the same. Seek new and uncomfortable challenges. Taking on a challenge helps you achieve “flow,” a state in which you perform at your peak and find the greatest satisfaction. Don’t avoid risk or live tentatively. Be willing to commit errors, fail and learn. When you fail at first, stick with your goal. “Grit” always beats “talent.” Know your priorities and go after them. Think long term.
4. Recognize others
When you receive recognition or win an award, thank all the people who helped you. Nothing great happens when you act solo without asking for help. Your relationships drive your achievements as a leader. Reach out to those around you – including your employees – for advice. Learn to understand other people better and to enlist their support.
“Your success as a leader links inextricably to how well you understand others’ homes, dreams and aspirations,” they write.
Practice is the reason top professionals perform their arduous tasks with apparent ease. That ease inspires people to believe mistakenly in natural leadership talent. No such thing exists. Only “deliberate practice” leads to greatness. Structure your leadership practices, think about what you do, set goals, devise techniques, build “muscle memory” and form healthy, disciplined habits – especially the habit of constant learning.
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