What is a leader? A learner...

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What are the building blocks for confident, focussed and trusted leadership?

This series, 'Building great leadership' covers everything you need to know, from identifying and developing leaders, to giving effective feedback and measuring success. 

What makes a great leader and more importantly, how do you know if you are one? It’s a question which many leaders struggle with and it’s not surprising why...

After all, if you accept the idea that the concept of leadership changes and develops in response to societal norms and you ally that with the widely held belief that it is rare to find ‘a leader for all seasons,’ then how do you know if you are the right person for the job?

It doesn’t really matter either which state of your leadership journey you are on.

You may have run, or be running, a global empire or you may have just accepted your first team leadership role; either way it can be all too easy for those little niggles of doubt to creep in and affect confidence and outlook.

So much so that impostor syndrome is a recognised condition; the feeling that you’re not really as good as others think you are and that one day you’ll be found out. In fact, impostor syndrome isn’t solely confined to those in position of leadership. It has been recognised in high achievers in all walks of life.

Even award-winning novelist Maya Angelou once commented that she had “written eleven books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now.”’

A small amount of doubt can be healthy, as it spurs us on to continually seek for improvement.

Not that that feeling stopped Maya Angelou from continuing to write and nor should impostor syndrome stop anyone from striving to do their best in their chosen field. On the contrary, being aware of the potential for failure can actually make us become better people, better leaders.

Interestingly, a BBC online article on the subject of impostor syndrome highlighted the dangers inherent in those who do not at times question their own abilities.

The Dunning-Kruger effect, again a known psychological phenomenon, comes into play when people are so convinced of their own ability that they failed to question or analyse their own level of competence. Summing up this trait the article commented that ‘the truly incompetent, in short, rarely worry about being truly incompetent.’

The comment that leadership is a journey is far more than a simple cliché.

The message therefore is that a small amount of doubt can be healthy, as it spurs us on to continually seek for improvement. It’s hardly surprising really. 

The comment that leadership is a journey is far more than a simple cliché; with research revealing that the best leaders see themselves as learners, focusing on five fundamentals in order to deliver continuous and continuing improvement.

Let’s take a quick look at these five areas:

  • Believe you can develop. Even if you feel like an impostor there is nothing in the rule book that says that you can’t improve. So the starting point for great leadership is being self-aware; being realistic about your strengths and weaknesses and believing that you can work to develop your leadership abilities. Quite frankly, without that belief there is not much that training or coaching can do in order to develop you. On the other hand, belief is the starting point on your journey towards great leadership. When you have belief your mind is open to new ideas and to new experiences, helping you to put in the effort which is required in order to develop yourself so that you can help to develop others.
  • Aspire to excel. This is the second stage on the pathway towards great leadership, following on from and building on belief. Let’s be honest, without aspiration, your belief will take you nowhere. Settling for the status quo means that you have self-limited a journey which should be ongoing and continuous. Now is the time to aim for something greater than where you are today. Now is the time to start becoming the leader you have the potential to be.
  • Challenge yourself. And now is the time to challenge yourself, to set your own personal goals and targets which will help you to develop on your leadership journey. Like any athlete your leadership skills and abilities need exercise and training if they are to grow and mature. Whether you set your own goals, whether you follow a leadership development app such as The Leadership Challenge Mobile tool, whether you work within a self help group, or whether you work with a leadership coach will largely be down to your own personal preference and circumstances. The important thing is that you do challenge yourself to develop your abilities and your outlook and your skills, thereby making you leadership fit and ready to move into a new and better space as a leader.
  • Engage support. Whichever path your leadership journey takes, remember that you don’t have to be alone. Yes there will be times for introspection and reflection. And yes there will be times when you have to practice those skills which will help you to become a better leader. But just as all successful sportspeople engage with a coach who can help them to open up their potential, so too do leaders need that outside viewpoint in order to maximise their own development pathway. No one is an island runs the saying, and if you are to be the sort of leader that inspires and enables others to act then you cannot rely on insular self-development in order to build a great leadership style.
  • Practice deliberately. You may not need the 10,000 hours of practice which the experts say differentiates the professional from the mere amateur but unless you work on developing your leadership style then it will be all too easy for old habits to creep back in. Leadership experts Kouzes and Posner say “what actually differentiates expert performers from good performers is the dedication to doing something every day to improve.” After all, if you are on a leadership journey then it makes sense for it to be one of continuous improvement and discovery rather than a daily commute to nowhere.

In an article for HBR in 2014 the co-founder of Fast Company, Bill Taylor, commented “It takes a real sense of personal commitment, especially after you’ve arrived at a position of power and responsibility, to push yourself to grow and challenge conventional wisdom.”

But ask yourself this: if I don’t open myself up to learning and developing then how can I expect my people and my organisation to grow and develop, to meet the needs of our customers in a changing world?

Catch up on the rest of the 'Building great leadership' series.

Helen Green
Leadership Collaborator
Quest Leadership Development
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