April 4, 2018
Leadership: A Reality Check
Lots of people want to be promoted and many are furiously focused on moving up the proverbial ladder to ever increasing job titles and responsibilities. Some use politics, others figure out ways to remove their current bosses in order to take their place, others move from company to company moving up as far as they can until they find a better company to get up to that next rung. None of that has anything to do with leadership.
Leadership is not a title. There is probably the same percentage of crappy bosses as there are crappy janitors. The problem is a crappy janitor does not make decisions that affect the lives of every employee in the company. Leaders are born. They tend to be the children at recess organizing team games. They tend to volunteer for extra work or duties. It’s the same in the workplace. Natural born leaders may not have the titles, but they certainly have the influence. People approach them — for answers, assurance, to share ideas. I’m sure you can think of one or two you’ve worked with in the past.
Then why are leaders not always the boss? Good question. There are plenty of reasons, from discriminatory hiring practices, seniority policies, perhaps even perceived as a threat to their boss and his/her career path. Leaders may also not be interested in managing other people, even though people follow them naturally. Leaders are not necessarily good managers either. Managers and leaders are very different animals.
Managers execute. They plan and manage projects, people and budgets to achieve department or company goals. They may not have a long term vision or the communication skills to inspire people to follow them. In fact, inexperienced managers may demand respect due to their title without having earned it. To become an inspirational leader, you need to be able to communicate effectively to all levels of the company. Your employees need to understand the “why” behind decisions made that affect them or their roles.
Leadership does not come from the suit; it comes from within. Some people think birth order makes a difference — that the oldest child will be the most natural leader, but after years of anecdotal evidence, I don’t see that as necessarily true. Leadership can be developed, just like someone who has a mechanical aptitude can tinker around, taking things apart and putting them back together again. The more you develop yourself, by taking on challenges, innovating, and encouraging others by sharing your knowledge or experience, the better a leader you will be.
In my company, we run an intensive 16-week Leadership Development program that puts practicing leadership into the work. Many employees apply and they can be from any level of the organization. We have Heads of departments sometimes being led by an Associate Recruiter through some of the team projects. Removing levels in professional development takes everyone out of their comfort zones and forces everyone to re-imagine their working relationship and communication skills. It’s hard to manage senior executives when you’ve only been with the company for six months. The intimidation factor of having to disagree and/or correct a senior leader in the organization can be uncomfortable at best, terror-filled at worst. Creating a safe place for practice and correction, elimination of hierarchy, and broadening their horizons by providing solid business skills along with leadership models and techniques, enables the program to develop leaders who will be building out new business ventures that will be part of the company’s future.
Now, most companies don’t have the luxury or scale to require a leadership development program. What can you do to develop yourself in a company that does not invest in their people? First, remember that leadership skills are transferable to any position. Even if you need to invest in additional education, this is an investment in yourself. In your future. (And please, not an MBA. We have too many managers. What the world needs is more leaders.) There are lots of online courses, blogs, videos, webinars, podcasts… books, magazines, and other print publications, as well as business-related TV shows that can add to your theoretical knowledge of how to be a great leader.
So how do you use what you learn through your investment in yourself? How do you put what you learned into action? Take the first step by having a 1:1 meeting with your boss. Share your desire to develop yourself and volunteer to assist with your manager’s work in order to learn more about what he/she does, how he/she does, and why. While some managers may feel threatened and won’t be comfortable with the idea, most will welcome an informal mentoring relationship that creates a “win-win” for you and your manager.
What if your manager isn’t willing to share their workload or assist in your professional development? Perhaps there are other more senior people in the organization that have the bandwidth and inclination to help you be a better, more productive employee at the company. It may make you more visible to senior members of the organization, but also remember it could make you look like a threat to your current boss. Tread carefully. Perhaps even ask for his/her permission before approaching more senior staff.
What if there isn’t anyone within the firm that is approachable? You have a couple of options. First, decide whether a company that is unwilling to develop their employees is worthy of your time and effort. If not, seek other opportunities in the market that may have better options for you. You may also find a mentor through a hobby or through volunteering at an NGO. See if you can find a cause you’re passionate about and determine which organizations can a) use your existing skill set, and b) can mentor you in learning new skills that you cannot explore in your current job.
Leadership is a special quality that requires active listening, empathy, advocacy, grit and perseverance. Leaders know that they are in the spotlight and their actions carry a lot of weight in how others decide to act. Leaders know that they can’t be successful without the efforts of their team members and they actively push any praise given to them back towards their teams. The more you do it, the more they’ll give back. It’s a wonderful thing. So get up out of your chair, step out of your comfort zone, and go for it. It is absolutely, totally, worth it.