…7 ways to ready yourself for leading

Before you read this article, you may want to take a look at the related case: A Question of Commitment – Introduction.

We have all watched leaders do stupid things, things they truly regret after a chance to sit back, relax and reflect. Perhaps you have been just that leader. I know I have.

A key message we share with every leader we coach or train is this: “learn, then lead”. When we think of leadership, we think of leaders in action, up front, sharing a vision, inspiring, and moving things forward. But before stepping up to a leadership challenge, great leaders take time to carefully observe what’s happening, seek to understand it as best they can, clarify what they really want, and prepare for success. Before acting as “leader”, they ready themselves as a “learner”.

Just over 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made his famous “Moon Speech” at Rice University, an act of leadership that has stood the test of time. The speech was exceptional. The soaring language would have meant little though had it not spoken so clearly to an American public that was space-crazy, spooked by the success of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, and hungry for something to hope for in the midst of Cold War gloom.

Less known than the speech is the months of consultation and consideration that preceded it, the real work of a great leader confronting the political realities of undertaking such a costly venture, assessing the technical potential of making his vision reality, and preparing to deliver a speech that so soundly resonated with his audience.

Most aspiring leaders have much more potential to lead than even they themselves believe. Problem is, sometimes that latent talent just doesn’t show in action because their learning fails before their leading even has a chance. Good practices executed well don’t help if you have poor data and/or have misunderstood what is happening. Here are seven suggestions to help you flex your learning muscles to improve your leadership…

Suppress Your Instincts.We have evolved into beings that occupy offices and work peacefully in teams. But lurking inside our business-like demeanors are instincts better suited to the jungle than the boardroom. Under stress, our bodies prepare us for fight or flight, amping up the senses, pumping up the blood pressure, and releasing a flood of adrenaline. Just when we need to think clearly and act smartly, our internal chemistry tunes us up for aggression or running away. Control yourself before you try to influence others or circumstances. Give your brain a chance to cope with the chemical soup it floats in. Relax and reflect before you react and regret it.

Resist the Push for Answers. As the business world speeds up, there is most definitely pressure to find solutions, make things happen, do something now. Especially when the “stuff” hits the fan, leaders feel pressure externally from others expecting them to step up, and internally as their own sense of responsibility is tweaked. A “bias for action” is exulted in our business culture, when a “bias for results” is what we really need. The technical complexity of our work and the social complexity of our organizations mean the quick way out of problems often leads right back into new problems, as well intended reaction produces little more than unintended consequences. Before you decide “what” and “how”, be sure to ask “what happened” and “why” to avoid “rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic”. There is probably more time for learning than you feel in the moment, but you’ll have to take it because it is seldom given to you.

Doubt Your Own Data.We like to think we are objective observers, unbiased collectors of facts and details. The truth is though that our brains process the world around us through a mess of prejudices, intellectual short-cuts, and memory errors. To be a better learner, build a grid of “touch and test” points, credible sources of data to check your own observations before you decide on a big move. My GPS triangulates data from 12 satellites to tell me where I am on the planet when I’m flying or driving. That same technique can help you navigate the murk that often accompanies leadership situations, if you build your grid of data sources before you need it and remember to use it.

Don’t Get Suckered by Your Stories. We love a good tale, a narrative to fill the gaps between facts and explain them in some meaningful way. Leaders need to influence, so the stories you develop about people are particularly important. While working with others, theories about them form in our heads. A problematic shift happens when we stop learning about them because we have started paying more attention to the stories we made up for them. Our behaviour begins to reflect the story, not the realities of who they are, what we want together, or how we can best work as partners to get it. Positive stories might seem helpful, but can blind you to real problems your “stars” are having or creating. Negative stories may cut you off from the true potential in your “low performers”. If you want change in others, give them a chance to “get out of the box” you have put them in by first changing your story about them. Here’s a question I ask to help me learn when I suspect my story about others is getting in the way: “If this person were sane and smart (rather than what my story says they are), why would they be doing what they are doing?”

Challenge Your Personal Story. The story that can undermine learning most is the one you tell about yourself, the one in which you have what it takes and know what to do. There’s good reason to be confident, no doubt. Demonstrated responsibility and capability are key reasons why you have been tapped for promotion to formal leadership, or why others look to you for leadership informally. You might even be the smartest person in the room most times. But in any given circumstance, you might not be. And as leader, you no longer need to be. Leadership is about getting things done with and through others. Willingness to listen and learn from others is a sign of strength, not weakness, for a leader. When working with leaders in trouble, a predictable condition is that they have a very narrow group of people they really listen to, or that that group is very narrow in its own thinking (e.g. all the same history, training, career path, etc.). If you want real breakthroughs in your learning, temper your confidence with the humility to consider observations, ideas, and suggestions from the truly diverse, different, even “weird”, people around you.

Test Your Own Rules. Anyone who has spent time with a preschooler has little trouble believing children are designed to learn. They test, challenge and experiment constantly, asking “Why?” to the distraction of any adult within earshot. As we mature, that inquisitiveness is displaced by what we call wisdom, lessons learned over a lifetime that help us diagnose problems more quickly, act more surely and avoid traps. We stop asking why because we know, or at least we think we do. Not a bad strategy, until things change and the old rules don’t apply as expected. Leading is about change and people. You are constantly dealing with the new and novel, working with the different and diverse. The old rules just won’t apply to every new situation – I have yet to find a leadership “rule” that is universal in its application. Be ready for that eventuality by keeping in mind this quote from Ron Wild: “Seek the wisdom of the ages, but look at the world through the eyes of a child.” Be a 4 year old – ask “Why?” even when you think you know, and especially when you are frustrated or surprised by what’s happening.

Have the Courage to Fail, Responsibly.  At some point, learning has to stop and more active leadership start. Millions of years in a “survival of the fittest” world, and a shorter time in business cultures that mimic it, have taught many of us to fear failure almost more than we enjoy the gains of success. When the stakes are high, you should be wary and move with caution, but you have to move. Stagnant, procrastinating or dithering are not descriptors you want others using for your leadership. There’s a line, let’s call it the readiness line, at which you know enough, have anticipated enough, are prepared enough, to move responsibly. The line is different in each situation, but great leaders don’t wait till they are 100% ready. The magic number in my experience tends closer to 80% – informed but with questions still to be answered; safe but not comfortable; with a plan but willing to adjust as you move. The only way to be absolutely sure what will happen next is to have the courage to take that first, risky, leadership step. As soon as you do, look around at what’s happening now, and learn from it.

Find out what happened with the case A Question of Commitment – Conclusion.

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Author: Randy Parkin

Randy, a Partner in Key Consulting Group, is passionate about developing leaders, their teams, and the organizations in which they work. He started out doing "real work" in factories, landscaping and a gold mine, before spending the last 30+ years as a trainer, coach and consultant.

Learn more about Randy here...
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