There is no truth to the belief that great leaders are born that way and that you can’t really develop or acquire the competencies for leadership. This belief stems from a self-limiting, fixed mind set. The first leadership principle—to achieve professional competence—tells us what to achieve, the second leadership principle—to appreciate one’s strengths and limitations and pursue self-improvement—tells us how to achieve it.
The growth mind set is essential for learning, growth, and development in any field of endeavour, and certainly this is the case for leadership. We grow by challenging ourselves and overcoming resistance and obstacles. The growth mind set as applied to leadership consists of what I call the Four Pillars of Leadership Excellence. These encompass the goal of development (objective standards), the power of example (role models), the understanding of objective performance and behaviour (self-knowledge), and the subjective awareness of performance and behaviour in action (self-awareness).
One of the most powerful concepts for leadership development is the “learning curve.” Learning occurs over time as we invest resources and effort in acquiring and honing new knowledge and skills. Learning starts when we become aware of a need for improvement or the potential to move to a new level. Learning itself is a cyclical process based on feedback. We need to act in order to generate results that we can then observe and assess against indicators. We therefore need objective standards and role models to emulate and to measure our progress. Prudent, calculated risks are the fuel of development. If progress is to continue on the road to development, then the learner must jump to a higher learning curve.
Just like an army on the offensive, you need a clear objective and mission. You also require a deep appreciation of your strengths so you can leverage them to the hilt, complemented by a realistic appraisal of your limitations so you can overcome or mitigate them. Your most powerful strength is your personal center of gravity. From the perspective of leadership, strengths can be any particular skills, attitudes, or elements of knowledge. Personality or character traits can also be strengths, as well as natural proclivities or talents, such as intelligence, visual and spatial abilities, and sociability. Strengths come at the intersection of things you do quickly and easily, you’re trusted and recognized for, and you’re passionate about. Once you’ve identified your center of gravity, you must then exploit it as much as possible, in concert with your other strengths, so you can achieve maximum efficiency and effectiveness as a leader.
It’s not enough however to play offence. You must also be able to manage your limitations and weaknesses so they don’t overwhelm your strengths and make you ineffective. I talk about managing limitations, because it’s probably impossible to eliminate them completely. All we can realistically do is contain them and mitigate their effects so they don’t hinder us excessively. I call this playing defence, because we don’t always have the initiative or the luxury to concentrate on all areas at once.
Techniques to Energize Your Leadership Development
- Adopt and nurture the growth mindset.
- View your successes and failures as feedback for learning.
- Study the objective standards of your field, profession or organization.
- Observe and emulate positive role models.
- Acquire self-knowledge to assess your leadership against objective standards.
- Develop self-awareness so you can witness your behaviour, thinking, and performance on a moment-to-moment basis and adjust these accordingly.
- Create a vision of how you wish to lead in the future, and then determine what competencies and traits you will need to achieve that vision.
- Assess your past performance as a leader so you can draw lessons learned for now and the future.
- Identify where you are on the learning curve for the particular competencies you need in leadership. Are you at the initial awareness stage, making rapid progress, reaching diminishing returns, plateauing, or in decline? What is needed to move to the next stage of leadership competence?
- What is the next learning curve for you? What are the most likely risks and opportunities you face when making the leap to the next curve?
- What are your top leadership strengths and your center of gravity? Develop a strategy to exploit your center of gravity.
- What are your top leadership limitations and vulnerabilities? What is your strategy to manage these limitations, depending on the situation and the people you are leading?
Richard Martin is a Master Strategist and Leadership Catalyst. Richard brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to radically improve performance, grow, and thrive in the face of rapid change, harsh competition, and increasing uncertainty.
© 2015 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.