We ask a lot of leaders. We want them to be strategic and provide vision, and we want them to be operationally focused on the specific tactics needed to move projects forward. We want them to be decisive and work with urgency, and we want them to be inclusive and take time to solicit and heed the input of others. We want them to innovate and experiment, and we want them to minimize, mitigate and control risk. We want them to be smart and have deep practitioner expertise, and we want them to be attuned to their own emotions and the emotions of others. We want them to exude confidence and self-assuredness, and we want them to remain grounded and be humble. It’s a lot to ask for.

Faced with such lofty expectations, how is a leader supposed to know which skills and competencies are most essential for effective leadership? How can they assess how fit they are to lead when their leadership fitness is judged against so many countervailing barometers?

For the last 30 years, I’ve designed, developed and delivered leadership programs for emerging and experienced leaders. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with thousands of leaders across the globe as they’ve struggled to live up to the seesaw expectations of what it means to be an effective leader.

Over time, I’ve noticed that the most successful leaders, and the ones who seem to enjoy leading the most, are those who pay less attention to judging themselves against the varied individual leadership barometers, and, instead, focus on three broad essentials of leadership fitness: leading themselves, leading others and leading work.

Consider the following brief descriptions of these three “leadership essentials,” and ways that training and development professionals can help leaders become fit in each area.

Leading Yourself

Leadership starts with self-awareness and self-discipline. A leader has to know what they’re good at and what they’d be wise to delegate. A leader has to have deep values to weather difficult situations. A leader has to practice self-care to keep from blowing a gasket. No leader is qualified to lead anything if they can’t first lead themselves. Here are some ways you can help leaders lead themselves:

  1. Value values: Early on in a leadership development program, it’s important to have leaders identify “what’s on your flag.” What deep values do they profess to be all about. Ask the leaders to pinpoint the behaviors that show up when they’re faithfully living each value. The point is to help each leader be thoughtful about the values they aim to embody. Values provide ballast and stability during the inevitable headwinds that leaders endure as they weather through challenges.
  2. Identify sunshine and shadows: A lot of emphasis has been placed on working toward people’s strengths. Fair enough. But strengths beyond a certain point start to cast a shadow. A leader with a piercing intellect might spend too much time drilling holes into the thinking of their colleagues, embarrassing them in the process. Someone with a creative imagination might spawn too many ideas that are untethered from practical application. Leaders need to do more than just identify their strengths: They need to include the shadows that get cast when the strengths are overused. When you have leaders identify their strengths, be sure to include time for thoughtful reflection and discussion about the potential overuse of those strengths.
  3. Practice self-care: Leaders are often under a lot of unrelenting pressure. They often find themselves overworked and under supported for unreasonable amounts of time. We call this all-too-common leader malady “redlining” — when a leader’s personal health engine is revving into the red zone. It’s unhealthy and dangerous. Help leaders assess and manage their stress, and consider including training on breathing exercises and meditation techniques. And, importantly, underscore that practicing self-care shows self-respect.

Leading Others

A leader’s success is contingent upon how successful they help others become. The aim for a leader should be to help each individual add more value to the organization each day. Helping direct reports add value to the business requires active coaching, clear and ongoing feedback, focused attention, and yes, lots of training. Here are some ways to help leaders develop others:

  1. Engage in connected conversations: Developing trust with direct reports is a prime leadership responsibility and having connected conversations can help. Introduce “The Important 15 Minutes.” Every week or two, leaders should invest 15 minutes with each person who reports to them. The key to an effective connected conversation is that it can’t have anything to do with the status of projects or tasks. It’s not about furthering projects. Rather, it’s about building trust by asking such questions as how things are going outside of work, how things are on the home front, what’s important to them right now, and what you can do to be more supportive of them. This can strengthen relationships and build mutual respect and loyalty. After all, people need to know that they’re not invisible and that you value them as fellow human beings.
  2. Create safety: People will experiment, innovate and take risks if the leader makes it safe to do so. The goal should be for leaders to create an environment where people are encouraged to share good news and bad news freely. Have your leaders reflect on and share “Do Over Moments” — moments when they were short-fused or heavy-handed. What would they do differently were they to live the moment again? Then encourage each leader to coach their team on how to share upward feedback in a way that will meet with positive reception and won’t trigger their defensiveness or anger.
  3. Support team building: Leaders and their teams are busy. But in the same way that it’s important to give one’s car a periodic tune-up, it’s important for teams to periodically let off some steam together and enjoy each other’s company. I’ve facilitated many team-building events where leaders and their teams bond together by hiking in the outdoors, taking cooking lessons, going hot-air ballooning and even throwing hatchets together! What matters is that people step out of their work identities and into more fun “regular people” selves. As a leader, it’s important to be more dimensional than just being “all work, all the time.”

Leading Work

Leaders are judged by the results they get. The whole point of leadership is to produce positive outcomes that didn’t exist before. Leaders and their teams need to deliver, effectively and consistently. Leadership has everything to do with adding value and getting results. It’s how leaders and their teams are judged. Here are a few ways to help leaders develop this leadership essential:

  1. Include strategic action teams (SATs): For companies that have lengthier leadership programs, consider including SATs. Such teams are a great way for leaders to team together while they work on an actual issue or opportunity that’s of strategic importance to the company. SATs help develop strategic thinking skills and general business-mindedness, and allow participants to make a tangible return on their investment (ROI) on the leadership program before it concludes. The issue or opportunity that each SAT works on can come from company higher-ups, or from the teams themselves. We usually set aside program time for the SATs to meet, but they’re also expected to meet away from the program. SATs culminate with a presentation to the company’s senior leadership with recommendations for resolving the issue and/or capitalizing on opportunities.
  2. Organize customer panels: Most organizations provide multiple services or products, and thus have multiple divisions. Mobilizing a small customer panel is the best way for leaders to get direct feedback about where the organization is doing well, how it fares when compared to competitors and what it could be doing better. You can do this inexpensively by asking your organization’s most senior people (or the company owner) to invite a respected person from their own professional network. We suggest having no more than four customers and sending them a list of prompt questions before the event so they can come with thoughtful answers. The best questions, of course, will come from the Q&A exchange with attending leaders that you’re aiming to develop.
  3. Visit job sites: Get out of the classroom! Go to where the work gets done. A lot of leaders become very removed from the customer-facing teams over time. Some leaders lead internal positions that are very far removed from the revenue-drawing work. Organize a job site walk through so leaders can have a direct experience of the work their leadership needs to affect, while gaining a broader knowledge of the business.

Yes, we expect a lot from leaders, which can feel like a heavy burden for leaders to carry. As training and talent management professionals, we can help lighten the burden by helping leaders focus on and develop the three essentials of leadership fitness — leading themselves, leading others and leading work.

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