Leadership is not defined by a title or a position, a record of experience or an accumulation of knowledge. That’s why there are many in positions of power who have great expertise and experience, yet are poor leaders.
Leadership is a practice that requires mastery of several key behaviors that transfer vision and motivate action. Like any behavior, they are meant to be learned, practiced, repeated and sharpened. Leadership should be pursued primarily as a set of practices to be developed and not as a position to be attained. When leaders learn to make this distinction between position and practice, they are crossing what I call the leadership threshold: a conceptual line that divides leadership grounded upon expertise, experience and authority (positional leadership) from leadership grounded upon behaviors and practices (behavioral leadership).
One way to nuance this is to say that experience, expertise and authority serve as crucial supplements to leadership, but generally do not themselves create leadership. Like logs in a fireplace, an accumulation of knowledge and experience provides fuel for the fire of leadership, but it is only behaviors such as conviction, communication and influence that provide the spark to set it ablaze. Crossing the leadership threshold means learning to view expertise, experience and authority as supportive but not primary.
I often tell my clients, “You know you’ve crossed the leadership threshold when you see yourself as an influencer more than as a superior.” But what is the difference between leadership and influence? This is an interesting question in that there do not seem to be many immediate distinctions, etymologically speaking. To influence is to lead and to lead is to influence. Your title might provide a platform for you to influence others, but it is your ongoing behaviors as a leader that make influence happen.
So what are these behaviors? What practices must a leader commit to taking on in order to genuinely influence others, to inspire action, to cross the leadership threshold? In my view, there are at least five: conviction, connection, communication, passion and vision. A leader must take on these practices and prioritize them to substantiate their leadership.
Conviction is a sense of how things must be or become. It’s an ongoing, internal commitment to something greater, something that transcends the current tasks at hand. Ask questions like, “What is the meaning behind what I’m doing?” “Why do I need to be a part of the lives of others?” and “What has convinced me?” You can’t lead people somewhere unless they are convinced they must go there.
Connection means delivering your convictions according to the language and paradigms of those around you. Ask, “Have I found the common ground between what I want and what my people want? Have I created a path forward that helps them see their contribution to the big picture?”
Communication is packaging your message into clear, action-oriented language and committing to consistently expressing what’s most important. Understand that language creates culture and shapes behavior, and stay on message.
Passion is the meaningful expression of one’s conviction. It’s a genuine, ongoing communication about where you want to go and why you want to go there. When others sense your passion, it gives them passion as well.
Vision means that a leader understands and communicates a clear picture of success, including how the team contributes to it and achieves it at each step. Know how to combine big picture with
small steps, to bring together vision and contribution. Vision without contribution is merely poetry and contribution without vision is merely a job.
The higher you rise in an organization, the more essential these people and leadership-related skills become. In crossing the leadership threshold, you must move from executing and performing tasks on your own to motivating and influencing others. This need for new skills as a leader progresses is the leadership gap many companies struggle to negotiate.
In the beginning of a leader’s journey, raw skills and task-related knowledge largely determine success, but as the leader progresses, the ability to motivate and inspire others increasingly determines success because they carry a larger influence over the total direction of others’ skills and knowledge within the organization. The irony is this: As a leader grows, their personal ability to execute a skill or knowledge-related task becomes less crucial for success because they are increasingly responsible for empowering others to do this.
The problem is that many leaders don’t conceive of behavioral leadership as a skill set to be developed the way their technical skills were once developed. Often leaders see these items as personality or intangible qualities that some “just have.” This is deadly because every company rises and falls on the abilities of its leaders to empower and engage their people, and if leadership is only a rare personality trait or a lucky quality bestowed on a few, then our companies are at the mercy of the gene pool.
Some are certainly born with more dispositions toward leadership, but leadership is a set of skills anyone can develop and improve. No accumulation of knowledge will cause you to cross the leadership threshold, but you can begin taking steps now to build the behaviors that will get you there.
Are you crossing the leadership threshold?
By Jared Lafitte
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