I’ve noticed that it’s not an infrequent occurrence to find that even the most savvy executives either confuse or misconstrue certain basic leadership ideas. As much as some won’t want to admit this, there is no one-size fits all formula for leadership. Leadership means different things to different people, and leadership requires different things from different people at different points in time. The fact is leaders come in many different flavors. The good news is leadership isn’t nearly as complex as many make it out to be. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a leader, we all need to take a step back and review the basic fundamentals of leadership from time-to-time. So, in today’s post I’ve compiled a short list of 5 things you thought you already knew about leadership, but may not be putting into practice.
1. Leaders come in different flavors: There are many different types of leaders, and you will likely encounter all of them over the course of time. Some individuals openly seek out positions of leadership, while leadership is thrust upon others. Whether leaders are elected, appointed, anointed, or self-proclaimed, and regardless of whether it is by design or default, they nonetheless carry the burden and responsibilities associated with being a leader.
While individual leadership approaches will be as different as night and day, and some will clearly be more effective than others, there is something to be learned from them all. There are leaders that we look up to by virtue of their street-smarts, wisdom, and experience; or by virtue of their expertise and contribution to a given field. Most leaders practice some aspects of the following representative leadership styles: authoritative, analytical, charismatic, emotional, intuitive, opportunistic, servant, benevolent, instructional, collaborative, delegatory, inspirational, consultative, visionary, coaching, democratic, etc., but which type of leader are you? Can you recognize the leadership styles of others? Can you adapt your leadership style to the situation at hand? The real trick for leaders is to understand the power of contextual leadership (see #5 below). Put simply, contextual leadership helps you avoid having to pound square pegs into round holes.
2. Leadership is a process or journey of becoming: Although certain people are clearly born with innate leadership qualities, without the right environment and exposure, they may fail to develop their full potential. So like learning how to ride a bicycle, you can also learn how to become a leader and how to hone your leadership abilities. Knowledge of leadership theories and skills may be formally gained by enrolling in leadership seminars, workshops, and conferences. However it is through daily interactions with people that you are provided with the greatest opportunity to observe and practice leadership theories. Together, formal and informal learning will help you acquire leadership attitudes, gain leadership insights, and thus further the cycle of learning. You do not simply just become a leader one moment, and then cease to need learning & development in the next moment. Life-long learning is important in becoming a good leader for each day brings new experiences that put your knowledge, skills, and attitude to a test. Ask any leader how much more they know today than just 5 years ago, and their answer will serve as my validation of proof of concept.
3. Leadership starts with you: The best way to develop leadership qualities is to apply them to your own life through leading by personal example. As the old adage goes “actions speak louder than words.” Leaders are always in the limelight. Keep in mind that your credibility as a leader depends greatly on your actions: your interaction with your family, friends, and co-workers; your way of managing your personal and organizational responsibilities; and even the way you talk with a casual acquaintance in the elevator. Repeated actions become habits, and habits form a person’s character and reputation. A leader who cannot be trusted won’t earn the loyalty and respect of those whom they lead.
4. Leadership is shared: As noted above, while leadership begins with you, it clearly does not end with you. Leadership is not the sole responsibility of one person, but rather a shared responsibility among members of a collective group. As much as some in leadership may not want to hear this, a leader belongs to a group, and each member has responsibilities to fulfill. An individual leader can accomplish much, but a culture of leadership can accomplish more. Formal leadership positions are merely added responsibilities aside from their responsibilities as members of the team. Effective leadership requires members to do their share of work. Starting as a mere group of individuals, members and leaders work towards the formation of an effective team. In this light, social interaction plays a major role in leadership. Learning how to work together requires a great deal of trust between and among leaders, as well as members of an emerging team. Trust is built upon actions and not merely on words. When mutual respect exists, trust is fostered and confidence is built.
5. Leadership styles depend on the situation: I know most of you have read more about contextual and situational leadership from me than you probably care for, however flexibility, fluidity, and adaptability are key elements of all successful leaders. One-size fits all leadership styles are simply disasters in the making. It’s essential to understand that what works with one constituency may not work with another, what works in situation “A” may not work in situation “B” and what works in China will be different than what works in Ireland.
Leadership practices, while remaining authentic, must be tailored to individuals, groups, culture, beliefs, value systems, form of government, socioeconomic status, and other demographic variables. Leaders must employ a combination of leadership styles depending on the situation. An example of the importance of flexibility would be that when staff are highly motivated and competent, a combination of highly delegatory and moderate participative styles of leadership would be most appropriate. But if the staff display low competence and low commitment, a combination of high coaching, high supporting, and high directing behavior from organizational leaders would be much more effective.
Now that we’ve taken a walk down the path of leadership 101, keep in mind that there are always ideas that we think we already know, and concepts we take for granted. I encourage you to keep in mind that these leadersip basics are also some of the most useful insights on leadership…Never dismiss as trite or dated the very same principles that made you a successful leader to begin with. If you have any examples of leadership basics that you feel are all too often overlooked, please share them in the comments section below.