Do we need to change the way we think about leadership?

It was a demoralizing set back.

Olivia (not her real name) had poured herself into the most challenging project of her career – a massive corporate growth initiative that, if successful, would alter the trajectory of her organization. It was high risk, high pressure and high profile. By all accounts, the first critical phase was a resounding success.

As the initiative left the pilot phase, a new division was created opening up a leadership role and a promotion opportunity. Olivia believed she was the natural choice. When the time came, however, she was not offered the promotion. Instead, she was told she was no longer needed on the project.

“They told me that it was my leadership style. I worked so hard to deliver the results they wanted and I succeeded. But apparently they didn’t like the way I did it. I don’t know what to do. I feel like they are saying in order for me to be successful here, I need to change who I am.”

Have you ever been told that there was something wrong with your leadership style? Have you ever felt you had to somehow become a different person to succeed in your organization? Perhaps, you’ve been told you are too harsh, too directive or too blunt. Or maybe you’ve been told you are too soft, too friendly or too easy on your direct reports.

Whatever the message, the impact is the same – confidence crushing and unhelpful.

Do you really need a personality transplant to succeed?

I would argue (and did) that in Olivia’s case, her problem wasn’t her personality, her character or even her style. In many ways, her personality – focused, committed, passionate and direct – was perfect for what she was asked to achieve. The problem was how she deployed those strengths – it was a problem of awareness and skill, not style or personality.

The feedback was not only unhelpful, it was pointing her to the wrong place. Perhaps the bigger problem and the reason we so often fail leaders like Olivia, is in the way we see leadership itself.

Most of us think of leadership in one or more of the following ways:

  • As a role we take on;
  • As a set of qualities and characteristics we possess naturally or try to emulate; or
  • As a set of competencies we acquire.

While each of these frames is valid, each is also limited. In those dispiriting moments we all face when everywhere we turn we come face to face with our own limitations, these frames are either incomplete or worse, they erode our sense of value and self-worth.

What if the road to mastery is not in ‘becoming a leader’ but in simply committing to the practice of leadership at every opportunity?

10 ways changing the way you think about leadership can change the way you lead.

Thinking of leadership as a practice offers a practical and powerful means of developing your leadership potential and that of those you lead.

  1. It offers a more helpful and actionable way to talk about improvement. Instead of asking you to change who you are, you can talk about changing how you practice. It is a conversation about awareness, about skill and about the conscious and intentional application of tangible practices to support you to improve.
  2. It addresses both competency and capacity. Thinking of leadership as a set of competencies is useful, but incomplete. Think of your leadership as a container. Focusing on competency is akin to filling the container with water. The water is crucial but the volume of water you can put in the container is limited by its size. When you build capacity, you grow the container itself. Competency addresses what you do; capacity addresses how and what you see. The first builds skill, the second transforms.
  3. It borrows from the professions. In the same way professional practice supports the development of skill and expertise in law or medicine, so does it support skill and expertise in leadership. It assumes an investment in education and development, apprenticeship, mentorship and the deliberate lifelong application of skills in the real world.
  4. Practice implies action. If you’ve spent your life in action and have succeeded by making things happen and getting things done, being asked to change your “way of being” can leave you scratching your head. Practice is something you can do, even if the doing means sitting still and observing the anxiety inducing swirl of your own thoughts.
  5. Practice fosters ownership. My practice is something for which I have ultimate responsibility. It requires me to take ownership for my own development and continuous improvement.
  6. It includes ritual as found in spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga or other forms of contemplation. Developing daily rituals like exercise, reflection or even regular times to eat and sleep are essential grounding practices that support leaders to build resilience and to manage the emotional and physical stresses of leadership.
  7. Practice implies an opportunity to improve. To the great relief of many leaders I’ve coached, practice frees us from notions of needing to be perfect. Practice is something we do to build competence and capacity. Incompetence is implied and merely a measure of where we are in the practice.
  8. Practice is the only reliable path to mastery. It has us tread the same ground again and again, to learn and improve. It uses our gifts but doesn’t rely solely on talent. It implies discipline, repetition and dedication. It demands time and patience. It removes leadership as an entitlement and, instead, asks something of us.
  9. It allows for many approaches. It’s a container large and open enough to hold and integrate the very best of all that the pioneers, innovators and experts have to offer. It does not assume one approach, one nifty tool or one best methodology. It implies experimentation, creativity and more than one right way.
  10. It is accessible. Leadership practice is accessible to anyone with the desire, courage and stamina to enter the practice. It sets up a way of seeing ourselves as active and empowered participants in both the problems and the solutions to the enormous challenges we face. This perhaps offers us the greatest hope for finding our way in this troubled world.
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About the author:

Cathy Jacob

Cathy brings a unique skill for deep listening, an unwavering belief in her clients and a gentle sense of humour to her coaching practice. She opened a full time coaching practice in 2004 and in 2009, she co-founded Fire Inside Leadership to expand the impact of leadership development and coaching in her community and beyond.

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