I’ve done a variety of seminars, workshops, keynotes, and programs on leadership through the years. In almost every case I’m asked initially to teach “leadership skills.” This terminology has always felt hollow to me, as leadership is so obviously much more than a set of specific skills to develop. From my perspective leadership starts with a philosophy…an understanding…a belief system.
Having worked with physicians, college students, service workers, operations personnel, IT professionals, and many other disciplines over the years I’ve spent countless hours facilitating exploratory conversations on what it means to become a more effective/successful/confident/capable/insert-adjective-here leader. The resulting dialogue almost always focuses on a set of intangible characteristics that are challenging to measure. Approachable. Decisive. Motivator. Knowledgable. Advocate. It turns out that these aren’t skills at all…they’re ways employees experience their leaders. Inherent in these qualities is a commitment to connecting with others, developing relationships, being genuinely invested in and concerned with the success of others. And more often than not that commitment, that belief system, is notably present in the soul of any successful leader.
So is leadership simply a belief system? A philosophy or mentality about others that doesn’t require any true skill? Of course not. Take that list of intangible characteristics and give it to a young or new leader. Do they suddenly know how to actualize that characteristic? Probably not. While they know how they want to be perceived they may lack the skill or experience to engage in the observable behaviors associated with those qualities. And suddenly we have room for actual skill building. So as my career has progressed I’ve approached leadershp development with this two-pronged approach: establish a philosophical foundation of how effective leadership is experienced then work to identify and cultivate the behaviors and skills that manifest those characteristics.
I’ve said for years that my favorite definition of leadership is Ken Blanchard’s who said that leadership is “a process of influence.” (Likewise John Maxwell said that “Leadership is influence…nothing more, nothing less.”) And when Dwight D. Eisenhower said “Management is getting others to do what you need them to do because they want to do it.” he was making the same point. It’s elementary to think of leadership as the first part of that quote- “getting others to do what we need them to.” But it’s the latter half of the quote- “because they want to do it”- that speaks to truly effective leadership. “Because they want to do it” proves influence, does it not?
Strong leaders aren’t born. They develop over time as a result of experience, coaching, training, opportunity, and mentoring. And somewhere along the way they recognize that leadership really is about everyone BUT them. They marry together a belief system with a skill set the result of which, typically, is a powerful level of influence for all who associate with them.