With so many books, courses, and instructional videos produced on the topic of leadership skills, it seems almost unthinkable that leadership could be misunderstood. And yet, misunderstanding of leadership abounds, and many people emphatically avoid the title of leader.
Choosing not to lead wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t for one thing – EVERY PERSON IS A LEADER. And by choosing to avoid leading, we miss opportunities to grow our leadership skills – which ultimately leads to leadership by unskilled leaders!
While it is impossible to offer everything about leadership skills in a single article, we can certainly clear up much of the confusion. So, let’s dig in!
What is Leadership?
Leadership is the act of inviting others to a new and better future. A leader inspires and creates change by casting a vision of a destination that is different, better, and achievable.
The new and better future can be many things. It can be as large as a nation’s purpose, or a company’s new product offering, or a family’s decision to emigrate to a new country. Or it can be as small as a the choice of restaurant, or which task a team starts first, or how a little league practice should unfold.
A leader selects a specific new and better future, and then decides to make this destination important to others.
It is critically important to realize that the act of leadership, the work of the leader, is all about intentionally creating and embracing risk. Risk that the selected future is not actually better, or that it cannot be achieved. Risk that others will not be convinced of the destination’s merits. Risk that a division will be created between those that choose to follow, and those that don’t.
“A leader selects a specific new and better future, and then decides to make this destination important to others.”
Who is a Leader?
Because they intuit the risk-embracing nature of leadership, many people shy away from assuming the leadership mantle, and from making leadership decisions. However, since a decision to not decide is still a decision, we all ultimately wind up making leadership decisions.
WE ARE ALL LEADERS, BECAUSE AT A MINIMUM, WE MUST LEAD OURSELVES. Leading oneself may be as simple as handing the choice of a new future over to others. Or it may be as involved as identifying a personal vision – a why – and then intentionally pursuing this.
And once a personal vision is identified and embraced, some will naturally choose to invite others – to lead others – to this new and better destination. This organic leadership is highly authentic – and can be very compelling.
“…the act of leadership, the work of a leader, is all about intentionally creating and embracing risk.”
Some people are more inclined to embrace risk, and in doing so, are inclined to willingly step into the leadership role. They catch the vision another has created and they adopt it as their own.
And since we’re all leaders – if we’re leaders that avoid leadership decisions, it is quite possible that we fall into the “poor leader” group.
“We are all leaders, because at a minimum, we must lead ourselves.”
Why is Leadership Important?
As Newton famously stated – bodies at rest tend to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.
Leadership is important because leadership is what makes change happen. And because of the constant change in our environment, our culture, our knowledge base, our personal circumstances – we have no option but to respond and to also change.
Without leadership, only random things happen. Important things aren’t sure to happen, and in fact they’re much less likely to happen, because they’re edged out by the easy and the default.
LEADERSHIP PULLS US AWAY FROM THE MEAN, THE AVERAGE, THE MIDDLE. Change requires us to go uphill – and going uphill can’t happen without a leader’s injection of energy and purpose.
Where does Leadership Start?
Leadership always STARTS WITH YOU. You cannot make things important to others if they aren’t first important to you.
Because of the risk a leader creates, highly effective leadership requires personal authenticity. That is, the most effective leaders start by identifying a new and better future that is personally important to them. And then, using their leadership skills, they make this future important to others.
If the better future a leader is inviting others to is not personally important to her, the leader’s followers will probably sense this – and knowing the risk inherent in the journey, the inauthentic leader’s followers quickly become reluctant.
“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something YOU want because HE wants to do it.” Dwight D. Eisenhower
Difference between Leadership and Management
Leaders create risk, and managers reduce it.
LEADERSHIP ANTICIPATES THE BEST OUT OF PEOPLE, AND MANAGEMENT ANTICIPATES THE WORST. While leadership invites others to follow, management ensures the followers are following.
Management is the ensuring things happen by creating, communicating, and monitoring expectations. It tracks individual people to see that they perform as expected, as opposed to inspiring a number of them. It creates predictability and order, and drills down to the individual level.
Management should always be paired with leadership - inspire first to motivate a group of people, and then monitor to ensure each individual follows along. And both management and leadership need to be present if a “team” (workplace, family, community org, sports, etc.) is to be as effective as possible.
“What gets measured gets improved.” Peter F. Drucker
Leadership skills can be summarized as those skills relevant to interacting with large groups of people, and to inspiring and creating vision. Conversely, management skills are those which are relevant to interacting with individual people, and to specifying and monitoring performance.
Many of the leadership skills required to lead people are also the ones used to manage people. However, the expression of these skills can be significantly different. For instance, a leader needs to effectively communicate to be compelling and inspirational, and a manager needs to effectively communicate to be precise and personal.
Because of the skillset overlaps between management and leadership, it is quite possible that a single person assumes either of these roles.
“Leaders create risk, and managers reduce it.”
Can Leadership be Taught, Learned and Developed?
Absolutely! Any skill can be acquired and developed by a motivated student.
While our nature and/or nurture may make us more or less inclined to embrace risk – and therefore, to assume the leader’s mantle – we cannot use nature or nurture as excuses for lack of leadership skill.
Personality isn’t skill. People aren’t “born leaders” because of their personality.
Skill is the ability to put knowledge into application, and skill mastery is the excellent performance that can only come from a highly practiced person.
It should be noted that MOST LEADERSHIP SKILL TRAINING FOCUSES ON GAINING KNOWLEDGE, AND LACKS THE FEEDBACK FROM AN EXPERT THAT IS REQUIRED FOR SKILL DEVELOPMENT AND MASTERY. Knowing how to play piano is only a very small part of being able to play piano well.
That said, the level of mastery that can be achieved may vary due to biological limitations. Every person can significantly improve skills to jump higher, play chess better, communicate more clearly, or express empathy better. But the ultimate level of mastery will vary, and not everyone can become the “world’s most compelling speaker” – but everyone can become an extremely compelling speaker with sufficient time, and the right training and practice.
“The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of “good enough.” The same thing is true for all the mental activities we engage in,”
― K. Anders Ericsson, Peak: How to Master Almost Anything
What Leadership Styles are There?
Style is a blend of personality and skillset, so really there are as many leadership styles as there are people.
However, to provide a somewhat more practical answer, since leadership is all about engaging with people, the differences in how we engage with people creates two dominant leadership styles: SELF FIRST, and OTHERS FIRST.
In the Self First style, the leader is “leading from the front”. In contrast, in the Others First style, the leader is “leading from the middle”, or sometimes “leading from the back”.
Neither style is wrong as both has their time and place. And many leaders will move between different styles depending on the circumstance.
Leadership Style Characteristics
When Leadership Goes Wrong?
With differences in leadership styles, with variations in degree of skill mastery, and with the risks inherent in casting a vision, there are unfortunately many opportunities for leadership to go wrong.
For instance, in organizations with little authority structure and minimally invested participants – such as a one-off collection of volunteers to build a house – a leader’s adoption of the Others First style can lead to confusion as to who is actually leading.
Or when two legacy teams, with substantially different cultures, histories, and structures are being merged as part of organizational restructuring – a leader with underdeveloped skills in empathy can fail to meaningfully connect with team members and to understand their fears. And failure to connect will most certainly lead to failure to successfully inspire a desire for change, and ultimately, a failure to successfully restructure.
Or when a father’s vision of a relaxing family dinner at a fancy restaurant fails to properly assess the risks due to a tantrum-prone toddler – the leader’s failure to create a new and better future may result.
As a leader’s skill grows, she commands a greater depth and diversity of tools and techniques. With this comes significantly increased ability to flexibly adapt to circumstances, and to therefore avoid failures of leadership.
“…a leader with underdeveloped skills in empathy can fail to meaningfully connect with team members & to understand their fears.”
Can Leadership SKILLS be Measured?
While numerical measurement of a leader’s skill is rare, it is not unusual to observe a leader’s followers to “VOTE WITH THEIR FEET”. That is, our decision to follow, or to not follow, a certain individual is a very useful measurement of a leader’s effectiveness.
Effective and skilled leaders have willing followers, because without readily compliant followers, the leader is either alone or a tyrant. So, the measure of a leader’s effectiveness is necessarily tied to the enthusiasm of his followers.
The followers also need to understand and agree with the importance of the leader’s vision, as this is critical to enduring the discomfort associated with change. So, measurement of a leader’s skill is also tied to her ability to influence the thinking of others.
With these thoughts in mind, the Net Promoter Score (NPS) metric a is simple measure that captures all of these considerations in one question: “How likely are you to recommend this leader to a friend?”.
How Does Leadership Impact People and Culture?
Culture can be defined as “the story we tell ourselves about ourselves”. By inspiring change, a leader is working to rewrite a portion of our story. A leader tells us a new story, and then invites their followers to adopt the story as their own.
In doing so, leaders change culture. And by changing culture, they change the way people feel about each other, the way they talk to each other, the way they treat each other.
“And by changing culture, they change the way people feel about each other, the way they talk to each other, the way they treat each other.”
Leadership is an extremely powerful force, and all of us are leaders. So, we had better take this role seriously.
With effective and value-driven leadership, we have the opportunity to elevate culture.
To lead our families, communities, and workplaces to places that are better.
Where we are People Helping People.
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