Leadership: A Personal Story

Eighteen years ago, when I had my first opportunity at leadership, I was unprepared because I was untrained. Six years later, my next opportunity was much more successful because I had trained myself through research and observing people who were active leaders. What surprised me was how simple my approach was and how resounding the feedback was.

"Steve, you're such an amazing leader for that team," was regular feedback.

My thought was, "Really?? I'm not doing anything special."

In my mind, I was barely implementing my leadership skills, which was true. I had long-term plans for how my team was going to increase their capabilities and value, advance in their careers, and be excited about coming to work every day, but those plans take months and years to come to fruition. In the six months that I had been working there, I was just barely scratching the surface.

"Why," I thought, "does everyone seem to think what I'm doing is amazing?" I was genuinely perplexed, even while I graciously expressed gratitude for the positive feedback.

The Disconnect

I then realized that what I thought was baseline behavior was considered exceptional by people around me. After researching further, I discovered a deep, disturbing disconnect between what great leadership is, and what many people think it is.

The disconnect I discovered between what leadership is perceived to be, and what great leadership is, resolved to two basic things.

  1. A pervasive, corrupted message that leadership is solely a position of power, which leads to the powerless to see a leadership position as a means to a goal: having authority over others. They then wield that power for personal gratification and protection because they are in a constant state of stress and fear.
  2. A glorification of the short-term thinking, energetic, exciting person who stirs things up, proposes radical changes and enables short-term success by wielding their power as a weapon. These changes, while impressive, quickly peter out, and people quickly discover that the core problems and needs are still there.

The True Power of Leadership

Impactful, long-term leadership turns out to be a very different way of thinking.

  1. You must see a leadership position, which does have power, as a way to serve those in your charge, not the other way around. You utilize your power to protect and grow the people who trust you to lead them.
  2. You must understand that only your team can confer leadership powers to you. No other authority gives you the power of leadership. You can be promoted to a supervisory position, but that does not grant you leadership.
  3. You need to accept that it requires patient, mostly dull, attention to long-term investment into the people who do the work. Realizing that there is no such thing as winning, but instead continued, sustainable growth over years and decades.
  4. It is displaying emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a relatively recent term that has gained tremendous popularity because this kind of intelligence is what enables transformational leadership instead of the brand of leadership that's dominated the last 30 years.
  5. Having a clear vision of what your team needs to accomplish, and then giving each member of the team the appropriate room to take risks and be challenged to achieve that vision.
  6. Being confident in your decisions and direction, primarily because you know that you have a strong team that helps each other, and you know that the right decisions are made.

People who view leadership this way use their power for the benefit of the people in their charge, and the needs of the leader become secondary. Achieving this mindset requires a significant amount of practice, training, and development of emotional intelligence.

One thing I've discovered over the past five years is that training is near non-existent. Women and men are given the opportunity to be in a leadership position, but tactical training on the skills needed for excellent leadership is not provided or encouraged. They are given a supervisory position, usually a raise, and then it's, "Ok, well, good luck with that!"

Being a leader is an entirely new career, and yet the top expert of a team is often given a promotion, when often they are the wrong person for the job. Yes, knowledge of the work that the team is doing is essential, but being the top performer is not required at all. The leader is now in charge of people, not the product itself. You want someone who has the desire and abilities to be a good leader, not someone with the desire and abilities to be a producer.

Hard Questions

If you are in a position to provide leadership, you need to ask yourself some hard questions.

  1. Do your teammates outperform their competition and want to stay with the team because they feel supported and challenged?
  2. Does your management team feel they are empowered to develop their teammates and have a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment?
  3. Do you know that a long-term investment in your team is the most effective investment you can make towards the success of your business?
  4. Do you know that people don't leave companies? They leave weak leaders and cultures.
  5. Is your team aligned on a single vision, and is equipped with the right tools to achieve it?
  6. Are you intentional about identifying and developing high potential leaders from within your company?

These are things that I think about nearly every day, and give attention to regularly to ensure that my team loves what they do, and consistently outperforms expectations.

Making those practices a routine did not happen overnight. I read exhaustively, wrote in my journal extensively, put ideas into practice consistently, and got feedback regularly to ensure what I was doing was effective. It's this last part where I see people stumble.

Many people are unable to put their ego aside and thrive upon constructive criticism. When I get positive feedback, I process it as something to continue doing. Nothing more. When I get negative feedback (when it is critical and constructive), I process it as something I can get better at. Nothing more.

Objectively evaluating feedback is a highly efficient and expedient way to improve your leadership skills. I thrive upon negative, critical feedback. It's the only thing that allows me to get better. When I don't receive critical feedback, I often get frustrated because that means that I have no guidance on how to get better at what I do.

Be Patient and Forgiving

If you want to be the best leader possible, you need patience. The journey is an infinite one. There is no winning at leadership. There merely is continual improvement and refinement of skills and strategies.

You also need to work on your ability to forgive yourself. You will fail. In fact, you need to fail because failures are the best way to learn. If you are not willing to fail at an experiment, then you aren't in a position to learn and improve.