Human behaviour that needs a special word for it.
A lot of people think, write and talk about leadership in our professional and personal lives. So I thought I also have to write something about leadership. Jokes aside, in the past year I tried to answer the questions “What is leadership for me?” and “How do I actually lead?“. Although I knew things about leadership, I couldn’t really answer them to a degree of correctness and cohesion that I was happy with and that would change the way I handle my day-to-day work. Writing things down forces oneself to think about a topic in a structured way, it helped me get a sense of what leadership is - here are my thoughts.
First thing I realized is that everybody can become a leader. I know that a lot of people say that and a lot of people agree with that. The key point here is that I don’t want to just agree with something as fundamental as leadership but really figure it out for myself.
A problem, connecting to this thought, is the that I see many people (including myself) starting to think about leadership when starting to manage people. The definition of leadership in the Oxford dictionary is The action of leading a group of people or an organization. In retrospective I think this is not ideal, as leadership doesn’t only happen when directing a group of people. You absolutely don’t have to be a manager in order to be a leader, inversely you absolutely should be a leader when you are a manager.
Although I think everybody can become a leader, I don’t think it’s easy nor simple. Gaining leadership skills takes time and effort, acting as a leader often requires shifting your mindset.
Acting instead of reacting is a very powerful mindset change that can have a big impact on your day-to-day work. Instead of being mostly an observer and just doing something when something happens, leaders flip the ratio of reacting vs. acting. Acting instead of reacting is a concept that applies to many other fields than leadership too, for example product management where it flips the coin from customer request management to real product management. Obviously that ration shouldn’t be infinity, reacting to external triggers is perfectly fine and often required but there should be consciousness about when to react and when to ignore.
When acting you have to be clear about what you want though - being confident and having a feeling of solidity. How you get to the what depends on your problem solving skills, mental models in general and experience and technical knowledge in certain fields. But no matter how much technical information you have available, the difficulty is to map this information into something you want. Whenever I have difficulties here I think What would the person I want to be, want?
Why? Most situations, you need to act as leader in, change is required. Be it a meeting that drifts from it’s agenda while it shouldn’t, to trusting somebody with more freedom. If you don’t know what you want, if you don’t know the goals you want to reach with your behaviour you don’t have a solid basis to ground leadership in. Different words for this may be having a vision and strategy, knowing where to go in the particular area you want to change something in.
This seems rational and obvious but it took me a while to really figure it out and push it that far, that it affects my day-to-day work.
This solid basis is crucial for driving change, as soon as you’re taking what you want and start doing something to achieve that, you’re leading. In most cases other humans will be involved so the success of the change taking effect depends on the way it’s communicated and pushed.
Introducing change, without a solid basis in my head, almost always failed when there was headwind meaning the thickness of the mental basis and your introduction obviously depend on the magnitude of the change.
Being aware of how good communication works, techniques of persuasion and systems of change introduction become necessary skills when leading. For a leader it’s crucial to be able to think from another person’s view in order to drive change more effectively. Thinking of Hanlon’s razor saying Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity., emotional stability and consistency become required characteristics of a leader. Leaders that know what they want and do something to get there but are lacking emotional stability and intelligence can destabilize parts of an organization.
Knowing what you want transitions into doing here. Really doing things end-to-end is hard, it requires yourself to spend energy.
If I don’t feel that I have to spend (a lot of) energy to change something I know I am not doing any change. Describing it differently is that the consistency between what you say and what actually happens, called accountability, is an extremely important human trait and leadership skill. As soon as I started to think of accountability when trying to introduce a change, I quickly realized that I have to reduce work in progress a lot, focus on the critical things and driving these forward as much as possible and appropriate until done end-to-end.
Because you may think of it, the concept of extreme ownership is, in my opinion, a good way of framing leadership, but, if endorsed in an organization, can also hinder leadership because if there is no culture of safe failure, giving all the credit and taking all the responsibility might be intimidating. When having to decide between leadership or silence that latter may be chosen more often.
An organizational culture that encourages leadership is a big cumulative advantage to the sum that makes a great organization. Building a non-buzzword driven organizational culture that really makes a difference as measured by the impact on day-to-day work requires a lot of leadership from many people - maintaining it even more and from all people in an organization.
To conclude, leadership is human behaviour that should to be developed by everybody, but it seems that when many people work, or simply come together, and the feeling of personal ownership and responsibility vanishes under the umbrella of anonymity, a special word, leadership, is required to change people. The call to action of this blog post is to get rid of the virtual barrier, that leadership is reserved to management, to start acting, knowing what you want and start doing something. It will be hard but also pay off.
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