Do the skills required to be a great leader spring from an inborn set of traits? Or can they be developed over time? Here’s a surprising answer – not only can they be grown, but they all come down to a single, rarely talked about ability that isn’t taught but certainly can be learned.
There are lots of articles with “Top-Ten-Skills-for-Leaders” floating around. They promise to answer a simple question – “How are leaders made?” – with a simple answer.
You may already reject the notion that there are one-size-fits-all solutions. No leader is complete, or perfect. They are all works-in-progress, even if they appear to already know everything and have the ability to accomplish anything.
Yet, few of us are deceived by such shows of bravado. Instead, most understand that professionals who manage, lead, captain or champion others can always improve their skills. If leadership is defined as “the production of desired results through the efforts of groups of people”, then it’s easy to see gaps. Everyone who steps up to this higher level of accountability is imperfect.
However, there is a way to be almost perfect.
In my book Perfect Time-Based Productivity, I quote Winston Churchill who said: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” If he is to be believed, then we could say that the best leaders see themselves in an ongoing process of growth. They consciously put themselves in situations where they must “change often” using the following three techniques.
- Repeated Discomfort
The few professionals who decide to lead and grow at the same time eventually realize that their next stretch goal is more than an obligation – it’s an opportunity to expand their skills. Consequently, they willingly sign up for the next plateau to conquer.
You may find them picking up optional challenges like marathons or part-time graduate degrees. While the rest of us struggle to keep up with everyday life, they invite added complications by committing to new, harder, more demanding goals.
They are restless: unable to sit on their laurels.
For example, a colleague of mine left his local degree program in mid-stream to go abroad to study. He switched majors, losing a year in the process. Why? He yearned for a new challenge, one that he found at MIT, where he was surrounded by others who were even more hungry. His switch worked, as they tend to, even when there were significant setbacks along the way.
- Finding a Coach
However, setting bigger goals isn’t the only method.
Few professionals see the value in paying someone else (a coach) to point out their weaknesses and push them out of their comfort zone. They have no problem seeing the benefit of sports coaching. But few have colleagues in the professional world who would do the same. Most are caught up in old thinking: “Anyone who needs such help is weak.”
I often answer by sharing that for over a decade, I benefited from the services of paid, trained coaches. On a weekly basis, they pointed out my flaws as a business-person.
As you may imagine, I gained the most when I set aside my ego, ignored defensive feelings and followed the expert advice. Being “coachable” was a proficiency in its own right I was pushed to improve in each conversation.
- The Best Skill of All
While setting challenging goals and having a coach are powerful methods, they are limited in their value if a third, overarching skill is missing.
If you can’t assess your performance ruthlessly, using insights into your blind spots gained from the initial two steps, you won’t get very far.
When I was lucky to do my first, structured self-assessment as a teenager, the tools were crude and paper-based. Today, they are better designed and available free online, but only the rare local professional does them on their own.
The one I did as a teen (the DiSC) gave me great initial insight into my preferred personality selected from four archetypes. Later on, in my early twenties, I did the more elaborate Myers Briggs Type Indicator. This assessment consists of 16 styles and offers more depth.
Consider both of these tests to be a first step in becoming a student of yourself. But not in the narcissistic sense. Instead, it’s possible to systematically look for faults, gaps in skill and flaws in character that get in the way of accomplishing what you want in life.
There’s even a second step; ask everyone you know to do these assessments also. As you share and compare your preferences, your insights will deepen dramatically.
Together, these skills enhance your ability to drive your own growth via self-learning. It’s a powerful combination that can’t fail to improve your performance, no matter what your aspirations might be.