Leadership skills can be taught but to learn them, they must be practiced. However, without embracing the full scope of what is needed to truly be a leader, and without a continuous honing of leadership skills, they forget the skills and soon flounder in to a mediocre shadow of their true potential. Whether it be a company executive, or an elected official, they must rise above the daily “doing” of tasks, and focus attention on leading. In failing to focus on leadership, they risk forgetting one of the very things that may have gotten them that new position; their leadership potential. Here are seven leadership areas that need to be learned, remembered, and practiced.
Personal Development: Jack Welch, when he was CEO of GE, said, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself.” I advocate that growing oneself is not just something done before you are a leader, but rather a continuous process. A leader who does not continue to learn and develop, risks becoming out of touch with the changing business climate or with the needs of their constituents. While leadership skills can be taught in a classroom, it is by plying them daily that creates learning of when to use what where and that then bonds them to the leader’s persona.
Vision: A leader must have a Vision for the organization. Steve Jobs, a Founder of Apple, described leadership as, “…about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could”. This starts with the Leader having a Vision; an aspirational description of what it is possible for the organization to become, to achieve, or to accomplish, and it sets the course for all future actions. An organization without a leader’s Vision is a ship without a rudder doomed to wonder from sunrise to sunset without ever accomplishing the greatness within.
Communication: James C. Humes, a former presidential speechwriter, said. “The art of communication is the language of leadership.” To communicate a Vision requires a mastery of this skill. There is no such thing as leading from behind closed doors because it is only by opening doors that we can communicate in a meaningful way. Meaningful communication does not require both the speaker and listener to agree upon the message. Rather it only requires they share the same understanding of the message. This concept is especially important when applied to a leader when communicating their Vision. Leaders use communication skills to develop a common understanding of the intended goals and mutual benefits the Vision, when implemented, brings to the Organization.
Relationships: Developing support for the Vision requires relationship building. Everything a leader accomplishes, or hopes to accomplish, will require assistance from other people and the easiest way to get assistance is to have built relationships. The right hand of building relationships is collaboration because,” … those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed." – Charles Darwin. Relationship building is a skill many wannabe leaders have either forgotten, or don’t want to practice, and the art of collaboration seems to have become a dirty word associated with weakness. People fear that collaborating will dilute the Vision to a point where it diverges from the intended goals. The contrary is true. Relationships and collaboration allow the Vision to become an inclusive, long term, sustainable reality.
Integrity: The left hand of building relationships is integrity. Integrity is the personal compass that incorruptibly guides the qualities of being trustworthy. Behaviors that demonstrate integrity include honesty, fairness, treating others with dignity, and respecting individual rights. Without integrity, a leader cannot build the relationships needed to make the Vision a reality, and a perceived lack in a leader’s integrity will overshadow everything they have accomplished or hope to accomplish. Former President Nixon ended the Vietnam war and he normalized relationships with the People’s Republic of China. These were great accomplishments, yet he is most remembered for the lack of integrity he demonstrated through his criminal Watergate actions which culminated in his impeachment and resignation.
Influence: Leaders master and practice the skill of influence. Influence is used to shape the Vision. Influencing starts by communicating the Vision and is followed by listening to the ideas, opinions, and suggestions of others. To influence others requires listening with the intent to understand rather than to respond. Influencing requires rational, respectful conversation focused on the mutual benefit the Vision brings. Those who believe they can lead by delivering witty, one liner, sarcastic criticism of their opponents have forgotten this skill and there has been speculation that the un-tempered rhetoric may have contributed to the recent shooting at the congressional baseball game. Words carry power and as such can be used to gain influence or to drive division. A leader strives for the former.
Execute: “A person's actions will tell you everything you need to know”, author unknown. Leaders know results matter and develop executable plans to make the Vision a reality. Successful execution requires the leader to set priorities, and to mobilize resources because an un-resourced Vision is just a dream destined to be forgotten as the days pass. Successful leaders surround themselves with a leadership team of experts empowering them through delegation with responsibility to execute the plans, authority to make them happen, and accountability for the results. That said, strong leaders take the heat when things get tough and give credit when things go well. Leaders who do otherwise, have forgotten that these types of behaviors and actions reinforce their credibility and integrity as a leader.
I don’t believe in natural born leaders. I do believe in natural born leadership traits. However, even those so fortunate to have those traits need to be trained in the skills of leadership, and focus on practicing their craft daily. Without this focus, they risk forgetting the skills of leadership and join the rest of the populace in wondering why nothing gets changed.