What does it take to acquire effective leadership skills?
First, you have to be good with people. Leadership is highly interpersonal, so many people skills are involved. To name a few: listening, accepting feedback, giving feedback and resolving conflict. These are skills you use with people, and you can learn them.
But people skills take you only so far. You need something else. A lot of people say, “It’s not just what you can do, it’s who you are.” I talk about this as “personal strengths” – behavior patterns such as honesty, integrity, compassion, composure, perseverance, initiative and dozens more. Some people refer to them as “character,” “heart” or “grit.” These aren’t passive traits, attributes or qualities. They aren’t real at all until you manifest them in your behavior with people.
Most of the time, you use a personal strength because it’s your habit to do so – your way of acting with people. Personal strengths are similar to leadership skills in that they are behavior patterns. Throughout your life, you learned to operate a certain way in a particular situation. When you listen, you do it a certain way. Or, say you have to deal with a crisis. If you take responsibility and tell the truth, it’s because that’s your way of behaving in that situation.
I use the term “personal strengths” because these behavior patterns are hard to engage. You aren’t born with them. People skills and personal strengths are learned. Every individual is at a different stage along the path of personal development. People will be strong in some skills or strengths, and there will be areas they need to work on. They may find it easy to act with honesty and integrity, because they’ve always acted that way. But maybe it’s not so easy to take a risk. Or maybe they have trouble staying calm, cool and collected when the world’s on fire around them.
So if you’re someone who’s in charge of others, you should make the best use of your strengths, and you should probably always be working on some aspect of effective leadership skills.
How do you know when you’ve “arrived,” when you can stop working on getting stronger as a leader?
I don’t think you ever arrive. How good a listener can you be? How patient can you be? How compassionate? It’s like asking a golfer how good a golfer can he be? How good can a musician be? Would anyone striving for excellence say, “I’m finally at the end of my learning. I’m as good at this as I can possibly be.” No, they achieve higher levels of excellence by continually striving to improve.
This principle also holds true for managers. If you want effective leadership skills and personal strengths, you never stop improving. One reason is that there are dozens of people skills and dozens of personal strengths. No one can be strong in all of them. Mastery is a lifelong journey.
The journey begins when you’re in charge of your first group. You realize that getting the best work from people isn’t easy. You make mistakes. But mistakes are one of the best ways to learn. Learn from each experience, learn from your feedback, and learn from the coaching you get from more experienced managers. The learning happens when you actually try something different.
Self-awareness is a big help. Listen to feedback. Take an honest look at yourself, and you’ll know what you should focus on next. And as you succeed as a leader, as you accept more responsibility, remember this: you can still continue your growth as a leader – one area at a time.