What is a leader? And how do you become a leader?
We tend to think of a leader as someone that you follow. A simple definition is that leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal.
For generations, you became a leader by working hard and waiting your turn. If you consistently demonstrated hustle, loyalty, and common sense, your effort would be recognized. You could become a leader by chance. The practice was simple and straightforward, and it worked pretty well. But the newest generations have challenged that tradition. They expect more from leaders than job knowledge and tenure. They expect leaders to be role models and mentors -- people they can look to for guidance and support at work, but also in life. Today's workplaces demand something different from their leaders, too. Employee engagement, through continuous improvement or other initiatives, is a hot topic in the workplace. Leaders are expected to have all the questions and the ability to engage multifaceted teams to find the answers.
The needs of the workplace have changed as we've transitioned from the industrial age, through the information age, and now the knowledge age. To meet future business challenges, we must rethink the role of leader and how we develop new leaders.
Four key paradigm shifts:
1. Develop & reward self-leadership as a foundation for leading others.
Back in my last formal leadership role, I was highly regarded as a leader of others. Had my company evaluated my self-leadership skills, my scores would have been less than adequate. My supervisor was difficult, sure. She was inconsistent and condescending. She said she was coaching me, but our interactions felt more like interrogations than helpful discussions. But it never occurred to me that the hours I spent complaining about her was behavior unbecoming of a leader. If I'm honest, I had more excuses than results. I completed my goals, but with as little effort as possible. My deficiencies in self-leadership were what determined my fate. In fact, if I had developed self-leadership, that foundation would have helped me handle her more effectively. I was good to my people, and I may have had a poor leader, but those were no reason for being a poor leader in my own life.
When I think about the leaders I most respect, they choose every day to be a leader in their own life. Consistency at self-leadership makes others want to follow them and to learn by their example. They are also able to teach their self-leadership practices to others. Great self-leaders don't worry about losing their job or getting through their next performance review. It's not because they are perfect -- they are human and far from it. No -- it's because they consistently take action toward their goals, focus on results, and learn from mistakes. They hold themselves accountable for both the "being" and "doing" of self-leadership. They aren't worried about being the best, but eternally strive to be the best they can be. Using a systematic approach to align their values and goals, they move through life with purpose and enthusiasm. Their humble confidence inspires others to follow them.
2. Embrace leadership as a practice (vs. leadership as an activity)
A doctor is a doctor in every room they walk into. They don't stop being a doctor when they go home or to the beach. They are constantly looking for new, better ways to do their work, they learn from their mistakes and their successes, and they actively share what they have learned with their colleagues. For a doctor, practicing medicine is not just a profession, but a purpose. They practice with focus, commitment, and discipline.
Like a doctor practices medicine, a leader practices leadership. Being a leader is who they are; it's how they regard themselves. A leader knows that the quality of his or her leadership not only determines his or her future, it helps decide the future of their family, organization, community, and potentially the world.
Imagine a doctor thinking of medicine as an "activity" -- something interesting or fun or enjoyable to do with friends. That reminds me of a commercial where the patient asks the nurse about the quality of the doctor, and she replies, "he's okay." Then the doctor comes in and says something like, "Look who got his license back! Well, almost." As the patient in that scenario, I'd be headed for the door. Similarly, employees may head for the door if stuck with a "leader" who is "just okay." I've reported to someone whose motto was "do as I say, not as I do," and though I survived, it wasn't a fun time.
Leadership as an activity is like a hat you wear sometimes. Leadership as a practice is more like a tattoo on your face: you need to be certain it's what you want before you commit. It's an important and serious responsibility.
3. Social media has changed everything.
There was a time when your character at work was separate from who you were outside of work. What you did on your own time was your problem. Social media has changed all that. Everyone is more exposed. Employers check candidate's social media for information about the kind of person they are by what they post about. I've known leaders who were asked to leave their employment over a controversial social media post. Anyone and anything can be recorded any time by anyone.
Like it or not, expectations have changed. It may seem like people can get away with a lot, or that we are okay with leaders of questionable character; when in actuality, we have come to expect to be disappointed by our "leaders." People still care about character, they just don't count on it. These days, after so much disappointment, people can be suspicious of people with strong character -- like they must be hiding something. No one likes to feel like they've been duped.
You may have heard of authentic leadership. Some people believe it means it's okay to be of questionable character as long as you are authentic or real. But they've missed the part of the definition that mentions ethics and self-discipline. If anything, the authentic leadership model makes a case for positive character development. The model also emphasizes alignment of character in all areas of life, inside and outside of work.
4. What got us here won't get us where we are going.
My official supervisor induction was three 2-day training sessions. They were called Introduction to Supervision, Leading with Empathy, and Creating a Respectful Workplace Environment. These were a major improvement over the training they replaced, which was a 4-hour review of the supervisor manual with someone from the Personnel Department. The new classes were mandatory for any formal leader. I remember tenured supervisors and managers complaining about having to go to training. One supervisor in my class used it as an opportunity to tell us how he was already doing everything right. And where his methods differed, how he was right and the trainers were wrong. When asked how he learned to be a supervisor, he said with a tone of pride, "By doing it."
There will always be an element of leadership that is learned by doing it. It's impractical to think we could train everyone on every possible scenario that could come up. That said, I also think we expect more from leaders today -- even on the shop floor. We ask more from the people who work for us than making a quality product. We also ask them to think about their work, how to improve it, and how what they do impacts the customer. "Engage employees" wasn't on the to-do list 30 years ago.
Routinely I hear stories of older employees making fun of the "kids" that expect training, documentation, and feedback all the time. The number one complaint is how kids these days have no work ethic -- or don't want to work. This from the same people who complain about having to go to work every day. They want kids to view work as a privilege, even though they don't (being grateful for having a job is not the same thing.) But kids want their work to feel less like and obligation and more like an experience. They want something more than just trading time for money. We need to figure out how to do that if we want them to stick around. It's going to take a different approach to leadership. What got us here isn't going to get us there.
Times have changed. We need to change with them -- or get left behind.
When we treat leadership as an activity, we treat leadership development as an activity. It becomes a check the box activity or a day away from the demands of real work. When we treat leadership as something we do for others, we miss out on developing fundamental skills and habits critical for our own success. If we don't develop self-leadership ability, then there's no teaching it to others. Making a widget stays making a widget, when it could be an exercise in practicing self-leadership.
In the end, it comes down to what we value -- and what we reward. The same old thinking brings the same old results. We can develop leaders that are leaders by choice. We can give people with the systems and tools to be leaders in their own life. When you practice self-leadership consistently, you develop the kind of character traits we want in leaders of others. You also develop a level of personal success that few have the courage and tenacity to achieve. It's time for a new paradigm.
Graphic used with permission, 123rf.com.