Our book “Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?” ends with a simple injunction – “Be yourself — more — with skill.” It is a message that has resonated with people who aspire to leadership in the workplace. It is much more than a plea for authenticity, for authenticity must be enacted in context.
The practical question becomes, “How can we help people to be more effective leaders in a world where leadership is needed more than ever?” Leadership is especially needed in businesses where exceptional performance is not a luxury but a survival technique — in politics, religion, health care and education, for instance.
We have recently been thinking about the training implications of our work. Let’s begin with what we now call a “metaskill” — that is to say, without this skill, it’s hard to do the others. If context matters, then leaders must read context. This metaskill is situation-sensing, the ability to collect and analyze soft data: How is morale in the Chicago office? Why are the marketing department so gloomy? It is certainly true that some individuals seem to have an intuitive grasp of this context, but situation-sensing is also partly a leaned skill. You can learn to see and to listen.
As an illustration, try this little experiment: Go to an art museum, spend half an hour looking at three paintings and then repeat the exercise with the audio guide. The most obvious outcome is that your perception of the paintings will change and, arguably, be enhanced.
In order to grow your situation-sensing capability, keep a short diary of your observations at work — maybe taking 10 minutes at the end of each day to do so. The very act of writing down your observations heightens your situation-sensing skills. In addition, if you’re aspiring to leadership, put time aside for collecting “soft” data, and avoid overreliance on the tide of hard data that threatens to overwhelm busy executives.
With situation-sensing in place, you can build other critical leadership skills. First is the appropriate use of social distance — going close in order to understand what is really going on and also creating distance, often to confront performance issues. The complicating factor is that each of us tends to have a default mode — either closeness or distance. We must practice the opposite skill from our default. When leaders can master this skill, issues around performance management and feedback begin to evaporate.
Secondly, leaders need to develop compelling communication skills. We live in an age where we are overwhelmed with information. Smartphones, tablets, computers and digital TV channels are all bombarding us with data, and leaders must convey their message through the noise. They also need to think about the channel of communication that works best for them — formal or informal, social media, small groups, large audiences, etc. The good news is that the returns on communication training are good. Most people can dramatically improve, even with a relatively short program.
Finally, there is a complex network of skills around self-knowledge, self-disclosure, and the balancing act between authenticity on the one hand and a necessary degree of conformity on the other. Leaders need to know what works for them and has the potential to inspire others and to disclose these distinctive qualities to the people they aspire to lead. Authenticity also includes the need to reveal some of their weaknesses — though not necessarily all — which humanizes them and gives their followers a chance to help them grow. Skillful and timely use of 360-degree feedback, combined with personal coaching, can be a great mechanism for developing both insight and skill.
Always, the balance between self-expression and context is key. Without some degree of conformity, leaders fail to generate organizational traction; they are like engines racing with no connection to the drive shaft. Conform too much, and you lose your leadership ability. Fail to conform enough, and you will accomplish little and will likely be rejected by the people you wish to lead.
Helping people to become more effective as leaders is a profoundly satisfying experience. People and organizations become more productive, and individuals feel much better about themselves. Leadership training is not just nice to have; it’s fundamental to sustained business performance.