Leadership basics I wish I had learned earlier - Part III

This blog on leadership has three sections.  Part I, as Simon Sinek suggests, starts with “why”; why are we talking about leadership at all?  Part II focuses on “what”; what leaders actually do for work.  And Part III focuses on the “how”; how you can develop your leadership values and most importantly habits.

In the first two parts of this series I discussed servant leadership and expanded upon that by looking at the primary role of any leader.  Now, let's say you are interested in pursuing a leadership position someday.  How do you go about preparing for that?

Best as I can tell, you’re really going to be on your own, so I do hope this blog gives you some helpful thoughts.  I will acknowledge that many corporations often have some kind of “leadership development program”.  Participants rotate through various positions over the course of a few years and gain valuable experience plying their trade, but as far as “leadership development”, these programs tend to be sorely lacking. You’re sure to find some good mentors but that’s true of any role.  These programs typically offer classroom training on leadership (which vary in quality), but this training almost never results in long-term behavior change.  And any training that doesn’t result in sustained behavior change is ineffective training.

If we want to get better at tennis, or poker, or coding, we wouldn’t expect to just take a class and instantly be proficient.  We need to practice. We need to become fluent, to make the desired behavior or action a habit.  As many readers know, this habit or “muscle memory” is actually a neurological adaptation called myelination, and it applies not only to physical skills that we’re all familiar with but also to thought patterns as well!  If you want any new behavior or thought pattern to persist, you need a strategy for changing habits.

For example, to be an effective leader you’ll need to be a good active listener.  You can read a book about active listening today and then apply what you’ve learned tonight.  This wouldn’t be habitual behavior, but rather this would be deliberate because you’re actively thinking about listening.  The real goal is to make this behavior persist into next week, next month, and next year without having to actively think about it.

So here’s the recipe I’d recommend to start developing your leadership skills now.

Step 1 - Learn how to develop new habits. 

This applies to both behaviors as well as thought patterns.  There are a few good books that I recommend.  James Clear’s Atomic Habits offers actionable strategies for changing habits, particularly behaviors. (An earlier book called The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg is a good read for deeper understanding.)  You’ll also need to learn how to habituate new thought patterns.  For example, imagine that your gut reaction when someone cuts you off while driving is to feel anger and to curse, but you want to change that to be more forgiving. This enraged thought pattern has been habituated; new thought patterns will need to be created.  This is a much deeper topic involving mindfulness, system 1 and 2 thinking or reacting versus responding, even Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques.  Thinking, Fast and Slow by nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman will explain system 1 (automated) and system 2 (deliberate) thinking.  There are countless mindfulness workbooks, apps and online courses to help you actually change thought patterns.

Step 2 - Identify the behaviors and thought patterns of good leadership.  

Become a student of leadership. There is no shortage of resources available.  I have one recommendation: start with Greenleaf’s The Servant as Leader.  From there, read a lot of books.  If you read slowly like I do, this can be time-consuming, so I personally like to use Blinkist. A good mentor, if you’re fortunate enough to find one, is priceless.  As you develop your leadership vision, don’t relegate it to a mere checklist; Authenticity is key.

Step 3 - Make these good leadership behaviors and thought patterns a habit.  

You do this by applying the habit-forming strategies you learned in step 1 to habituate the behaviors and thought patterns you learned in step 2.  Do this over a long period of time, or better yet never stop doing it. This will require a venue in which you can practice your skills. I recommend coaching youth sports for this.  Don’t worry if you’ve never played the sport before.  You’ll learn as you go.  The challenging part is going to be the EQ skills we talked about earlier. You’ll deal with kids who are angry because they don’t get the call, frustrated that they can’t perform a technique, they’ll at times be embarrassed or scared, unmotivated or distracted, you name it, you’ll face it. Just as you will as a leader in your professional life. You’ll have to work to earn their following and your goal will be to ensure the success of the team, just as it will in any leadership role that awaits you in the future.  (You’ll also have to navigate the other coaches and parents.)  If youth sports isn’t your thing, you can find other opportunities. Organizations like boys scouts, girl scouts or Year Up offer the opportunity to work with groups.  Big Brothers and Big Sisters or tutoring will provide one-on-one practice if that feels like a more appropriate place to start. You could even get a weekend job at a fast food restaurant as assistant manager or shift supervisor.  Whatever venue you choose, this will be your training ground, the place where you will apply the habit-forming strategies you learned in step 1 to habituate the desired skills.  This will require intense focus and deliberate intent; don’t just go through the motions.  (Keep a journal of this entire process.  The process of writing is a great way to reflect.  And having a written record will help you later as you look for new opportunities.)

I hope these three articles have been thought-provoking. There is far more to discuss than I included here, but I tried to keep this short and boil it down to a solid foundation.  We started by looking at Servant Leadership, the hallmark of a true leader.  We then looked at leaders' primary responsibilities.  And finally, I outlined an action plan to develop your leadership skills.  From what I’ve seen, most people are focused on developing technical skills, and while many people read about leadership, outside of military officers, not many people are actively trying to change their behaviors to implement what they’ve read.  If you follow the steps I outlined above, you will likely find yourself leaps and bounds ahead of your competition when it comes time to look for leadership roles.

If you have thoughts you’d like to share please comment below, I’d love to hear from you!


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