Sunday, June 13, 2010

Developing leadership skills

In the beginning...
I thought that leadership was some kind of attribute that all public people had and that all the others didn't have. Leadership was the skill that enabled them to be "famous" - and I didn't need that. I guess I confused leadership with notoriety which later on I found was a quite common mistake. Then I thought that there were leaders and followers and you'd be either a leader or a follower - you were born one or another and you couldn't possibly be both. Later on I found I was wrong and, again, that this was a common mistake. Then I thought that leadership was a way to predict success: if you were a good leader you would be somehow successful. Guess what: I was wrong again!
I don't change my mind easily but I did change my mind a lot on the topic of leadership. And that's what really got me interested on - what's with this leadership thing that makes me change my mind so often? What is there so difficult to capture?
Well, this post has the main objective of saving you time if you're just starting on this topic and put you on the same stage where I am. But be warned: I may soon change my mind again!

What is leadership?
Every leadership author has a different definition but all of them include (i) the ability to influence people, (ii) orientation to results and (iii) all give the idea that leadership is a social skill. So if I had to define leadership myself I'd say that it is a social skill that allows someone to make other people want the same one thing and use that will from others to make it happen.
On one hand, social skills are built on top of emotional intelligence and not the regular intelligence that is measured by IQ tests (basically reasoning and logic); on the other hand it involves other people, it's not something you do alone. So leadership is something you develop when relating to other people and you don't need to be a rocket scientist to do it!
Ok, this is a start...

...but in practice...
...this doesn't seem very helpful, does it? What exactly does a good leader? The correct answer is: it depends! You can imagine a perfect leader for each given context but not a perfect leader for any context - and so the answer depends on the context. And context vary on several variables like:
  • The leader itself (his/hers values, personality, culture, skills, experience,...)
  • The people being lead (again, their values, personalities,...)
  • What they're set to do (putting a man on the Moon feels different than developing some piece of software or wining the World Championship)
  • The environment where they're set to do it (leading a remote team sounds quite different from leading a team from your office)
So, lesson no. 1 is: a good leader depends on the context.

A good example of a leader, in fact one I always try to keep in mind, is a coach. If you think of a coach, he must have:

  • Social skills: he has to deal with the players, the managers, the fans, the press,...
  • Making people want the same thing: the coach has to make the players believe and want the team's objective (a greater purpose that each of the players want to achieve)
  • Channeling of that will to make it happen: so the teams works on it, keeping in sight the major goals but always working on smaller objectives towards that goal
One thing that comes out of this example is that the coach doesn't play the game with the players, he just makes them play as good as they can. So leaders don't need to do the work, they just need to make the work flow in the direction that suits his/hers objective...
And we have lesson no. 2: a good leader doesn't need to do work! How do you like that?

Another example
Imagine you have a plant and you want to make it grow. A simple fact is that plants know how to do it, they can grow by themselves. In fact, that's what they've always done. If you command the plant to grow yelling at it regularly do you think it will give any results? Well, probably not... but if you provide the natural conditions they need to grow like water and light you will probably get it to grow, right? That's what a leader does: (i) he finds what makes others move, (ii) provides that conditions and (iii) directs their energy towards the results he/she wants to get.
So lesson no. 3 is: a good leader is a provider. Or a roadblock remover. Or both. He/she makes sure everyone has everything they need to get the job done.

Leadership competencies
Depending on who's thinking about leadership and on what perspective (psychology, human resources, general management, project management,...) you'll see different sets of competencies necessary for effective leadership. For instance, on "The extraordinary leader" by Zenger and Folkman, you'll end up with 5 clusters of 16 different competencies. On "The leadership machine" by Lombardo and Eichinger you have 67 different competencies - which would probably make you wonder if they're talking about the same topic. Try googling for leadership competencies or leadership skills and check out how many different sets you'll find... What I concluded from this is that the competencies themselves are not important as whole, there's something behind them that plays a much more important role. In fact, you even have...

...opposite competencies!
If you look at any of these lists of leadership competencies you'll find out that's impossible for the same person to master all of them and that some are almost the opposite. For instance, Zenger and Folkman talk about "Solving problems and analyzing issues" and "Championing change" which are somehow contradictory, do you agree? Also Lombardo and Eichinger talk about "Results focus" and "Visioning and strategy" which again are a bit contradictory... do you think you can find someone with all of these competencies developed? Well, probably not...
The thing is that depending on what kind of a leader you're looking for, that is, what kind of context the leader is in, you'll want different sets of competencies embedded on the leader. Think of the military: both a General and a Sergeant are leaders. But you'd probably prefer a general with the ability to "Championing change" and "Visioning and strategy" rather then "Solving problems and analyzing issues" and "Results focus". And for a Sergeant you'd probably go the other way around, that is:

For a General, prefer the following leadership competencies:
  • Championing change and
  • Visioning and strategy
Over the leadership competencies:
  • Solving problems and analyzing issues
  • Results focus

Selecting competencies to improve
So imagine you are thinking of competing either by running the marathon or by weight lifting just because you enjoy both. If you do both the marathon and weight lifting you'll have to develop a set of competences in order to run the marathon and a different set of skills in order to lift weights. Do you agree so far? Now, to run the marathon one thing you'll have to develop is resistance; and to lift weights you'll have to build strength. But developing resistance means that you have to give up some strength; and building strength means you'll have to give up some resistance. So if you want to both run the marathon and lift weights you won't do as good as you would if you just picked one and developed the set of competencies necessary either to run the marathon or lift weights. Ah ha! If you do both, the best you can expect is to be average; if you pick the one you like best or that you have more "natural talent" you have a change to be great!
And this is counter intuitive, my bet is that you you'd imagine that the ideal process would be to evaluate how good you were at each competency and then try do develop those that you were worst at, am I right?
Going back to the military, it's pretty easy to imagine how hard it would be for someone to be a good General and a good Sergeant at the same time. And if you want to be a better General you should develop the competencies necessary for a General, not those that are necessary for a Sergeant, right?. And the same the other way around, if you want to be a better Sergeant you should develop the competencies necessary for a Sergeant, not those that are necessary for a General.
This does make sense after all!
Better yet, if you already have some "natural talent" to do something you probably enjoy more the skills you need than the skills you don't need, so you have to do better at what you already enjoy doing and do best!
You may be surprise but this in fact a simple and old truth, even Abraham Lincoln once said "Whatever you are, be a good one."...
And this is the bottom line: if you want to be a better leader, you should develop the skills and competencies that you enjoy best and that are better at - or the ones you're worst at for the kind of leader you are.
And this is lesson no. 4: to improve as a leader you should improve what you already do best!

Walk the talk
There's one thing I think it's safe to say that all leaders should be able to do and that is to build trust. Even if you think of the most controversial leaders like tyrants and dictators, they only last as long as there's some kind of trust - even if it's just a small group that trust him. If there's no trust their days as leaders are numbered.
There's a justification for this. On one hand, if you believe that a leader is a provider, you'll also believe that you have to trust the provider. On the other hand, some of the good things a leader brings (like someone people look up to, motivation and a sense of a greater good) are built on top of trust and so if there's no trust there's no way to build upon that and so you won't be able to get those good things a leader should.
So in short, a leader has to walk the talk, that is, he must act accordingly to what he says and demands from others.
Final lesson: a good leader is trustworthy.

And from here...
Assuming you trust what you've read so far, there's a lot to learn about leadership. It doesn't take much to get started, but you can't take anything from granted. There's a lot of other things like what we saw earlier about improving as a leader, that can be counter intuitive - please remember that. Also remember that this is a starting point on leadership from my point of view - and so some basic stuff is missing, like the leadership styles that were not included. But you can read all about it in several places - actually I like Wikipedia as a starting point, as long as you don't take anything for granted.
The most important thing to remember after reading this is that:
  1. a good leader depends on the context
  2. a good leader doesn't need to do work
  3. a good leader is a provider
  4. to improve as a leader you should improve what you already do best
  5. a good leader is trustworthy

Just keep in mind these 5 lessons on leadership and I'm sure that...
Then you can be a better project manager!

Images taken from Keeping kids first, RealityRN and Leadership Skills Cartoons.

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