I am amused, if not sometimes concerned, when people take hardline positions on most anything. There are simply too many variables with human nature to say “always” and “never.” Yet, you hear such pontificators every day.
I’ve studied a bit about leadership and the only conclusion I can draw is that each and every person comes to the leadership role with their own set of unique assets, experiences, and attributes. While certainly science has drawn some broad conclusions about “typical” people and “usual” outcomes, people are simply not that predictable. These generalities are not very helpful, in my experience, in predicting leadership success or failure. As the saying goes – Yes, you are unique. Just like everyone else.
What do you bring to the leadership table? Whatever your formal education, your work experiences, your innate skills, or your missing elements, you are as entitled to seek a leadership mantle as anyone else. Not everyone seeks major leadership roles, and that is fine. All organizations need leaders at all levels of the organization. With the more recent (and wise) move to integrated performance teams, shared leadership is common in most organizations today. Everyone is expected to lead to the best of their ability even if their leadership extends no further than their personal self-discipline. Which highlights a very critical point – you are already a leader. You might lead your family, or a charity, or a work project, or any number of other things but as a bare minimum – you lead yourself. And like all leadership roles, you may do that well or very poorly.
Among the many possible leadership attributes, you are certain to have your share of natural abilities or talents. You may not see them, and may have been dissuaded. Since you do not have “all” of the qualifications, the dream-killers in your life may have encouraged you to “give up” on your dreams and simply not to work to improve your leadership.
So rather than lament that fact that you were born male, or female, or black, or white, or Asian, or liking sushi, or being lactose intolerant, or anything else (yes ANYTHING else) about you, you have a leadership role that you can grow as large as you choose to grow it. And that is the key. You must CHOOSE to lead. Once you select a comfortable span of leadership, can you sustain it and, hopefully, grow it?
Many people are placed in leadership roles. That does not make you a leader. As Goffee and Jones have noted, “Subordinates may not decide who their bosses are, but it is the followers who will ultimately decide who the leaders are.” If you are lucky enough to be put into such a role, do you ask yourself, “Why did they choose me? I can’t perform in this role?” Or do you ask, “What must I do to properly grow into this leadership role and become a sustained leader?” Clearly the first question you ask yourself will influence what happens next. What does it mean to be a “leader?” What natural talents and experiences do you already have? What are your weaknesses? Have you even conducted a self-assessment to know these answers?
In studying leadership I have identified 229 elements of leadership. No one is perfect in all of them and everyone has a unique set of elements where they have already shown different levels of success. To sustain that leadership, to grow into your new leadership role, there are several things you can do immediately. First, consider your natural and already developed traits. Know yourself. Do you exhibit good character or do you have a collection of company office products at home? Do you have the appropriate level of competence, or do you need to learn more about the operations of your new team?
Do you have the appropriate level of compassion toward those you lead, or do you put people down in public? How well do you communicate? Are you comfortable expressing your vision, or does your public persona “er” and “um” every time all eyes in the room are on you? And how committed are you to the overall vision and mission? Does the vision you have developed for your team align with the overall organizational goals or is the team confused and befuddled by your vision and their role in fulfilling it?
These five elements, Character, Competence, Compassion, Communication, and Commitment are the top five headings in the Sustained Leadership WBS (Work Breakdown Structure). All leaders should review these five regularly and dig deeper into the lower level elements to assess their performance. The next assessment should review your abilities in what I call the Essential Leadership Journey Checkpoints (ELJCs). These are character (again), being a constant learner, developing situational awareness, being decisive, being focused and disciplined, developing other leaders, and having vision. As you review all 229 elements you might select others where you believe you need more development as a leader. That’s fine. In fact, that decision reflects a level of self-awareness that is a positive leadership trait.
These seven ELJCs reflect seven areas where people in leadership positions most commonly fail. You may be able to retain your position for a season, but an inability to master these seven will ultimately cause your leadership to become unsustainable. Character includes the elements of honesty, integrity, and knowing yourself. A leader who does not engage in constant learning will soon atrophy and become a dinosaur with technology, among other things. Being a regular reader and exposing yourself to new opportunities are essential parts of this element. A sustained leader develops their observational abilities to be able to assess a variety of situations as quickly as possible. Whether it is negotiation posturing, the level of talent that is available, or a specific developing opportunity, the sustained leader will gather facts quickly and choose a course of action. Being decisive allows for progress on goals without undue delay. A focus and disciplined approach to the tasks at hand prevents wasted resources and ensures that the goal is achieved – the final product is delivered as promised. A leader’s vision inspires the team toward a positive goal, and through example and formal development, on the job and in more structured environments, the sustained leader ensures that there is a strong cadre of developing leaders to assume more responsible leadership roles. Each of these is critical to sustainable leadership.
A particular trait of yours might be another area that could derail your leadership journey. Are you a narcissist? Often such people get “seen” and are put in leadership roles, but their hubris and ego cause their followers to abandon them. Do you procrastinate and allow yourself to be paralyzed through successive rounds of analysis? A bias for action is a favorable leadership ability. Or is your paralysis most on display when you attempt to speak to larger groups? Do you hold a sense of privilege over your position, or do you try to manage by rumor and gossip? All of these are examples of where leaders have failed, sometimes spectacularly! Assess yourself. Look for your areas where development will enhance your leadership. Engage in constant learning and improve your leadership abilities.
Never before in the leadership literature has such a comprehensive review of the attributes, traits, characteristics, abilities, and practices been so well developed. Using a Work Breakdown Structure approach borrowed from project management disciplines, the Sustained Leadership WBS takes that metaphor a step further in defining the scope of work in building a leader. It provides the necessary “Work Breakdown Structure Dictionary” that provides a proper lexicon for discussing leadership and giving everyone a proper roadmap for their personal development. It makes no difference your starting point. It makes no difference which set of strengths and weaknesses you hold. And it makes no difference whatsoever your genetic makeup. What matters is your decision to lead and your commitment to lead well.
The sole difference is your personal choice whether to develop yourself as a sustained leader or not. When you look around at the state of leadership across the world today there is something very puzzling. We have leadership institutes and think tanks. There are courses of study and college degrees. Leadership development is one of the major training expenses in many organizations and more than 1000 books on business and leadership topics are published every month. Why then does there seem to be such a lack of leadership in business, government, and charities? In Jeffrey Pfeffer’s recent work Leadership BS he notes that both the development and selection of leaders across society seems to be badly broken. I agree. The solution: Changing the world, one leader at a time. It’s your turn.
Tom Reid is a Texas attorney who has practiced Government Contract Law for his entire career. He is admitted to practice before the US Court of Federal Claims and the US Supreme Court. He currently serves as President to the Subcontract Management Institute. His recently released book, Sustained Leadership WBS was released October 3 by Morgan James Publishing.