A crash course in leadership

Most managers face a critical moment when they can no longer rely on their professional skills to climb the career ladder. They have to let go of everything they know and allow others to take the reins.

Some say this feels like «the ground opening up beneath them.» All certainties disappear and you have to master a whole new set of skills. If you have built your career on ticking off a to-do list every day, this can be terrifying. With no tasks to achieve, no evidence of «adding value,» you might wonder whether you have a job at all. Your confidence hits a low point just when you need it (and need to show it) most.

So what is it like to be in this position? And what can you do when, on top of all this uncertainty, your boss asks you to show more leadership? What does this mean? If you are lucky, you might find a mentor or be sent on an executive education course. But more likely, you will have to learn what you can from your colleagues or trawl the hundreds of business books on leadership.

While I am a great fan of Peter Senge, Warren Bennis, Stephen Covey, et al., I suspect they are not really practical for busy managers at this point in their careers. Can you really become a resonant, authentic, Level 5, or white-water leader when everyone is watching your first tentative steps toward leadership?

It is in this spirit that I have compiled my own rough, easy to consume guide to leadership. It is based on hundreds of coaching conversations with managers facing this difficult transition and consists of five practical steps:

  1. Be aware. Understand yourself and your context. Know your own strengths, limitations, and development needs. If you don’t have time to build your skills, bring people into your team who will complement you. Be aware of the organization and the people you are leading. If you have moved from a start-up to an established organization, for example, the people and the rules of engagement will be very different.
  2. Have a plan. Know where you are going. One great definition of leadership is to have followers. If you cannot create a sense of the future, no one can follow you.
  3. Build relationships. Give more of yourself. A leader has to get things done through others, so people skills are critical. Take time to get to know your peers, bosses, and subordinates. Talk less, listen more, and remember the details of what people say. Investing time to understand the roles, ideas, and personalities of those around you will yield a strong network, corporate allies, motivated staff, and personal goodwill.
  4. Deliver. Get things done. Whatever your line of business, you need to show the results of your leadership. So whether it’s a better product, an improved service, a higher profit or share price, make sure you deliver.
  5. Have integrity. Get your values right. Your values define who you are and why others should work for you. The important point here is that values should be lived, not written down or occasionally talked about. Show by your own example that honesty, truth, transparency, respect, and sustainability matter.

These are the key principles of leadership as far as I can see. Do you agree? Is this an oversimplification or a welcome streamlining of a subject that has become far too academic? Is it time for a campaign to demystify leadership or will it always remain complex and challenging?

Gill Corkindale, Source: Harvard Business Publishing

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