What is leadership? How does one develop leadership skills? Are leaders born or made? What do I need to do to become a better leader?
There are thousands of books written on leadership, as well as masses of courses on this topic that you can dive into.
Here's my take on what leadership is all about.
There’s no leadership if there’s no followership since the followers define the leader. I love this old joke that a leader without followers is basically just someone out for a walk. But there’s actually a lot of sense to that. If you’re not able to generate followership, you’re not a leader—period.
Then what does it take to generate followership?
The essence of generating followership is the ability to build trust. If you’re not able to build trust with the people around you, you don’t have a chance.
Where are we going?
First of all, leadership implies that we’re going somewhere are we: Where are we going? Can you explain to me the direction that we’re going to take? Why do we need to go there? Because if you can’t tell me where we’re going and why we need to go there, why on earth would I choose to follow you?
It’s that simple. We can have the grandiose visions and missions. We can even do the Kennedy one where we put people on the moon. Or we can take a simple leadership role: What are we going to plan for our family vacation? Would you like to join me on the family vacation?
Where are we going and why? As a team leader, what do you see for your team in the future? Where are you going? Do you want to be the best customer service team in the organization? Do you want to be known as the team that was innovative and brought new solutions to your customers?
What is it that you’re trying to do? Because if it’s just status quo—staying put being where we are—then we don’t need a leader. We only need a custodian, somebody who looks after stuff so nobody steals the furniture. There’s no need for leadership in that situation.
Will I feel safe?
Now that we established that we’re going somewhere exciting, the next thought that comes to me as your team member is: Am I going to be safe? Safety comes on two basic levels: Is it physically safe? Are we going to do something dangerous that could put me in danger? Well, most companies won’t be climbing Mount Everest or doing something like that, but there are lots of teams that do all sorts of dangerous stuff. Team members need to trust their team leader to keep them safe.
Another essential aspect is this: Am I going to be emotionally safe? Am I going to feel okay being a part of this team? Am I going to be worried that if I make a mistake, hell will break loose? Am I going to feel accepted by the others? Is it going to be okay to voice my opinion? Is it going to be okay to be me? Am I going to fit in?
As a team leader, these are important aspects that you have to find out how to accommodate. How do you make everybody feel safe, both physically and emotionally? It’s your responsibility.
It’s basically part of the trade-off of being the team leader. Why do we accept that somebody has a leader position and all the perks? Well, the trade-off is you can be my leader if you protect me. That’s the basic deal.
Will you see me?
The third aspect is if I’m going on this trip with you as my leader, will you see me? Or will I just be something that’s there, someone that you don’t really pay attention to?
When I talk to you, are you going to be your iPhone half the time trying to do something else and be like, “What did you say? Yeah, I know. We'll fix that”?
Or are you truly going to see me when we communicate and interact with each other. Am I going to feel seen?
Will I learn and grow?
Then fourthly, will I learn and grow on this trip? Is it going to be possible for me to acquire more knowledge? Am I going to develop myself? Is it going to be interesting from that aspect?
Or Is it just going to be a team leader-centric sort of trip, showing how brilliant a team leader you are? Is there actually also a place for me to learn and develop?
Will I be able to contribute?
That also plays into the fifth element: Will I be able to contribute? Will it be recognized that I have a contribution to make? Will I be allowed to make that contribution? Will I be allowed to do what I’m best at?
If I’m going to be allowed to contribute, it means that you as a team leader are going to have to take some chances. You’re going to have to let me out of my comfort zone. If I’m going to learn and grow, that also means that I might make mistakes. I might screw up. I might make you, the team leader, look stupid. That’s the risk that you’re going to have to take.
When I do that, will you protect me despite the fact that I screwed up? This is all part of the trust that you need to build up, with me being willing to follow you.
To recap, these are the key elements:
- Where are we going?
- Will I feel safe?
- Will you see me?
- Will I learn and grow?
- Will I be able to contribute?
As a team leader, how do you develop these core attributes, skills or traits?
Well, you can’t learn to be a team leader through a book in the same way that you can’t learn to ride a bicycle by reading a book. You need to do something.
Then, you need to notice the feedback that you get: What happens when I do it? When you get the feedback—when you see what’s actually happening—observe: What are the facial expressions? What’s the body language? Are people taking chances? Are they contributing? Are they engaged? What is actually happening on my team? Do you need to turn any of these handles that I just mentioned? You need to reflect on the feedback that you get by observing what’s going on. You have to be present. You have to be there and observe what’s going on.
Then, make a new plan, try again and do something else. And again, look for the feedback and see what it is.
You’ll be even better off if you could get somebody to help and coach you. That’s often somebody who’s not part of the team because they have the freedom to be brutally honest with you, which is what you actually need.
It’s really helpful to have somebody to discuss this with and develop some of these reflections with: I did this and this isn’t what happened. What do you think when you hear me say that? What have I overlooked? What am I not seeing? What am I not hearing? Do you have any ideas for what I could try instead? Do you have any insightful questions to pose me?
That’s what one uses a coach for.
I hope this has inspired you a little bit to think about leadership. In one way. it’s quite difficult and complicated, but in another sense, it’s also basic.
It’s like juggling oranges.
You see somebody juggle five oranges and you go, “Yeah, that looks pretty easy.” Then you get the five oranges in your hand and realize it was not so easy. The only way to learn how to juggle those bloody oranges is to get in there, do something, and learn from doing it.
That’s what I would encourage any of you who want to get better at your leadership role to actually do.
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