When you spend year after year, five to six days a week, eight to ten hours a day doing something, chances are you will glean some pretty significant insights and wisdom from the experience.
I spend my days talking to leaders. As an executive coach, every day brings leadership development conversations with leader after leader, many holding what others would consider pretty powerful positions of authority and responsibility. The focus of the development conversation is unique to each person, yet in many ways remarkably the same: how each of them can be better leaders and show up as competent, compassionate and inspiring to others while creating the future, leading their organizations through complexity and an ever-changing environment and driving for and achieving desired results.
As you might imagine, many of our conversations have similar undertones, and patterns begin to emerge when you talk to so many people striving for the same things. So, what conclusions have I drawn about leadership development from these thousands of hours of coaching? There are too many to write in a short article, but I will sum up four of the most notable ones:
1. Good intentions don’t equate to good leadership.
Most leaders I talk to have good intentions. No one intends to be aloof, arrogant, overly demanding or uncaring. When feedback from others includes these descriptors, many leaders are surprised and puzzled. They see themselves differently, and they can’t understand how others would ascribe these characteristics to their leadership style.
Yet, when we sit and analyze their actual behaviors, an impact story emerges. What is the impact of looking at your computer and emails while someone is talking to you in your office? What is the impact when you don’t smile and say hello to people as you walk down the hall? What is the impact when you are too busy to send someone a note of acknowledgment and thanks for working all weekend on an important briefing? People don’t see your intentions or what you are thinking. They only hear what you say and see what you do. To be a better leader, your behaviors must be deliberate, intentional and in alignment with the impact you desire to have.
2. Being authentic is a faulty goal.
There is so much fodder about authenticity — and for good reason. Most of us value honesty and want people to be real with us. We don’t want to be manipulated or played by false actions and sentiments. That is a given. But, this doesn’t give us carte blanche to throw self-regulation and self-management out the window under the guise of being “authentic.”
We, as humans, are all works in progress. We have years of conditioning, cultural norms, childhood experiences and habits to inform us and also to overcome. Our instinctive emotional responses aren’t necessarily sourced from an authentically connected and compassionate place. Instead, they often come from a reactive protective, pleasing or controlling part of ourselves that we may not even be consciously aware of. So, to tout those reactions as “just being authentic” is a cop-out. Instead, deliberately choosing our behaviors and responses to match who we want to be is a much more worthy goal when we are striving to be the best leader or even person we can be.
3. Self-reflection is hard work and not measurable.
Most leaders I encounter have gotten to the positions they are in through hard work and consistently achieving results. Achieving results comes from action. So, it isn’t surprising that most want to approach their own leadership development as a problem to be solved and conquered. What are the specific steps I need to take, what do I need to do, and what do I need to say to meet my goal?
Yet, often, what is warranted is some deeper self-reflection and soul-searching about not what I need to do but who I currently am and who I need to be. This can be a daunting task, as it takes time and a different type of muscle to sit, think about and assess not what you need to do but how you need to show up on a consistent basis. This isn’t accomplished with a checklist and series of steps. It takes a lot of thought, reflection and honest self-evaluation.
4. Learning to ask more and tell less is paramount.
Another common attribute of the leaders I work with is intelligence. Most leaders I encounter are incredibly smart and talented. They know a lot. When you know a lot, a tendency is to tell others what you know because, of course, that is why you are where you are. And that intelligence serves you well — until it doesn’t, and it becomes a liability. Because when you know best, and you already know the answer, you also close yourself off from asking questions and listening. Or, you only ask leading questions to get the answers you want or are looking for, and then you stop learning. Or, you miss things. Not only do you miss things, but you don’t get the most from others because, of course, you are the smartest person in the room, and how could you possibly miss anything?
A major leadership development milestone is when you learn to stop relying so much on how smart you are and what you already know and become curious about what others know: when you start asking more open-ended versus leading questions to create collective learning and allow new data to emerge. Learning to let go of telling and do more asking and listening is a child-like curiosity necessary to relearn when we are already smart.
Leadership development is a lifelong journey. What I find is that those of us who realize we haven’t arrived at the end of the journey when we earn a title of CEO, President or Vice-President — but are actually back at the beginning — are on our way to demonstrating true leadership.
By Janet Ioli
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