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Musings on Modern Leadership part 1

Leadership; there’s a lot of debate about what good leadership is and looks like.

My personal current definition is: “Leadership; to influence and inspire a broad group of people to excel to achieve a common goal”. But can “Leadership” be taught? Much corporate and academic energy has been expended trying to answer that one.

I have thought both “yes” and “no” at different times.

Yes; Leadership is a set of skills like any other that can be taught and acquired with enough dedication.

No; Leadership is more than a series of classroom taught skills.

We’re not helped when much of the deluge of Leadership advice focuses on the “What is” of leadership at the expense of the “How to”.

Herminia Ibarra in her recent book “Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader” posits that you can teach the actions that someone must consistently engage in that will in time facilitate their shift into becoming a Leader. But essentially ‘becoming a leader’ is a question of developing a new identity. And you can’t do that by staying inside your head, thinking about it, contemplating it and, once you have established your new leader identity in your head finally acting on it.

You need to invert that process. You develop your new ‘leader identity’ by doing. First learn the actions you need to take; do them, experiment with them, accept they will feel uncomfortable as they are new and outside your comfort zone. Eventually in “the doing” you gradually acquire your own unique leadership identity. It emerges, becoming sharper in focus, the more you ‘do’ leadership actions until they feel natural.

This resonates.

In my experience coaching executives looking to ‘step up’, this is not what they want to hear. Why? Because it means ‘putting yourself out there’, exposing yourself before you feel ready. A coachee wants to cling to the safety of thinking and introspection before putting their new behaviours into action, emerging fully formed. The reality is the other way round. Thinking yourself into your new leader identity is doomed to failure because without first hand experiences thinking is just a bunch of assumptions and guesswork.

The perceived danger for the wannabe leader is by “doing” too soon they potentially reveal their weaknesses; they are making themselves vulnerable in the eyes of those they aspire to lead. That’s scary.

Another danger; how you think about yourself is dictated by your past. Values and beliefs are by-products of previous experiences. One of the toughest jobs as a coach is getting a coachee with a successful career history to accept “what got you here, will not necessarily get you there”. They can point to 20 years of achievement as evidence that they must be doing something right. Chances are they have demonstrated the qualities of a successful manager, not a leader.

And the transition from manger to leader is fraught with pitfalls!

Accepting that once you step into a leadership role you have to adopt a new mind set and find a new identity by forming a new set of relationships and doing new activities requires a leap of faith. It requires ditching activities that make you feel secure and good at what you do.

Another hurdle; 14 years as a coach has convinced me we have an epidemic of Imposter Syndrome (when you catch yourself thinking “I’m going to get found out”? Imposter Syndrome). Boy is it going to kick in it is when you have to take the reins of your department or company and everyone is looking to you to drive and guide and inspire the organisation (ie THEM) to success.

Embrace your Imposter Syndrome! It’s not going anywhere (yet). Accept becoming an effective leader means having to act consistently outside your comfort zone. The more time you spend there, the more you experiment with possible new identities the quicker you will discover a new one that works for you.

Thinking back to my first executive coaching assignment which was with an MD at a global investment bank, walking into their offices triggered full blown imposter syndrome. The MD didn’t know what was going on in my head, my job was to not give it away through my behaviour, language or actions. I had to start acting like an executive coach to learn how to be an executive coach to develop my executive coaching identity.

Much is currently made of being ‘authentic’ (of which more later). I think much of this is overdone. Not fashionable to say but Ibarra too contradicts much current thinking here.

Think of developing a new work identity like going shopping for a new look. Your current one is, let’s be honest, a bit too “young” and it’s time to go for a sharper more mature look. Just because the image in the mirror reflecting back is different from before doesn’t mean it doesn’t suit you (pun intended). Try it on; gauge the reaction of others because that is the acid test. How you see yourself is secondary to how others perceive you.

“Faking it until you become it” really does get you a long way.

In part two we will look at what is ‘leadership work’ and return to the question of authenticity.

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