Anyone Can Learn to Be a Better Leader

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Monique Valcour for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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When you’re an individual contributor, your ability to use your technical expertise to deliver results is paramount. Once you’ve advanced into a leadership role, however, the toolkit that you relied on to deliver individual results rarely equips you to succeed through others. Beware of falling into the logical trap of “if I can do this work well, I should be able to lead a team of people who do this work.” This would be true if leading others were akin to operating a more powerful version of the same machinery you operated previously. But it’s not; machinery doesn’t perform better or worse based on what it thinks about you and how you make it feel, while humans do.

Occupying a leadership position is not the same thing as leading. To lead, you must be able to connect, motivate, and inspire a sense of ownership of shared objectives. Heightening your capacity to lead others requires being able to see how you think and act, and how your behavior affects others. Leading well requires a continuous journey of personal development. Yet people in leadership roles often eschew the long and challenging work of deepening self-insight in favor of chasing after management “tools”— preferably the “quick ’n’ easy” kind, such as personality type assessments that reduce employees to a few simplistic behavioral tendencies, or, for example, implicit bias workshops that are used as a band-aid solution for systemic discrimination, or stack ranking systems that purport to identify the best talent by requiring managers to compare employees to each other. Instead of being a short cut to effective leadership, this mechanistic approach is more often a dead end that misdirects leaders’ attention away from the linkage between their own behavior and employee outcomes.

As an example, I worked with an organization that had disengaged employees and frustrated managers who wanted to instill greater commitment and accountability in their teams. A few years earlier, the firm had overhauled its performance management system. The centerpiece of the new solution was a system that prompted managers to enter performance goals and ratings for their direct reports, schedule performance review meetings, and complete the annual performance appraisal process within a specified time period. When managers completed performance appraisals on time and the ratings they gave fit the target distribution,  its sponsors claimed that the system had increased precision and accountability in performance management. What the system’s dashboard didn’t show — and its sponsors failed to appreciate — was that implementation had accompanied a downward spiral of employee morale and engagement. Employees reported that their managers didn’t appreciate their value and were uninterested in their development. Many were on the lookout for new opportunities elsewhere. For their part, managers felt that the organization made performance management cumbersome. They were also blind to their own contributions to a workplace climate that weakened commitment and accountability.

Tools can be handy aids to good leadership. But none of them can take the place of fearless introspection, feedback seeking, and committed efforts to behavioral change for greater effectiveness and increased positive impact on others. In my work with the organization above, I helped leaders learn that their greatest leverage to improve the commitment and accountability of their employees lay not in tracking their goal completion, but in creating and sustaining a motivating interpersonal environment. While we did use tools such as frameworks and checklists, their function was to help leaders note the quality of their own and their employees’ experience of work and shift it in a more collaborative direction; they weren’t to be used as replacements for this essential work. Leaders learned to recognize how their assumptions shaped their behavior and learned to consciously adopt mindsets and behaviors that produced better leadership outcomes.

Instead of hoping in vain for a magic tool to come along to help you manage your team, think of creating practices to increase your leadership proficiency. This involves taking an idea or research finding and translating it into behaviors that you can repeat systematically to create the desired result. You can use the following steps to design a learning practice for any developmental challenge you’d like to take on:

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Monique Valcour is an executive coach, keynote speaker, and management professor. She helps clients create and sustain fulfilling and high-performance jobs, careers, workplaces, and lives. Follow her on Twitter @moniquevalcour.


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