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Developing your Leadership – or the Challenge of Self-Development?


Developing your Leadership - or the Challenge of Self-Development?
by Donna Cox

Is there a leader you would follow without hesitation? A world, sporting or community leader. Or an individual from your professional life. If so, what is it about them that would win your following?

Now look at yourself. How good a leader are you? Would you follow yourself? If so, why? If not, why not?

Perhaps you see yourself more as a manager than as a leader, or don’t view yourself in a position to be either?

Firstly, we at The Leadership Trust recognise that there is a difference between management and leadership. Often, however, many people confuse these terms which can often result in the wrong people being chosen for the wrong roles and functions. Management embraces all the functions of business: money, product or service, distribution, administration, people and so on. In essence, it looks at process. Leadership, on the other hand, is that part of management which deals with its most costly, sensitive and challenging primary resource: people! People rather than process. Leaders and managers can be as different as chalk and cheese.

Secondly, we see leadership as being multidirectional. Upwards leadership can be found in a situation where an individual leads upwards within the hierarchical chain. An example of this might be where an employee offers a chief executive suggestions on how to tackle a business problem. Downwards leadership could be seen as the traditional view of leadership whereby a senior individual leads downwards within the hierarchical chain. Sideways leadership, meanwhile, occurs between colleagues at the same hierarchical level. For example, where peers discuss an issue and they both leave feeling inspired and motivated.

If we can see leadership as multidirectional and about people rather than process then it offers the opportunity for us all to lead others at certain times in our personal and professional lives.

This is good news for anyone who thought that leadership was a mystical gift bestowed upon a chosen few at birth. We all have the potential to lead, and more importantly, to develop our effectiveness as leaders. The difficulty is that so many current books on the topic examine the achievements of outstanding leaders and hold them up as shining examples for us all. We can’t all be a Branson or a Roddick, and faced with the prospect of measuring ourselves up against such icons it is easy to feel more than a little daunted. Yet the reality is that there are examples of great leadership happening around us all the time. Examples of ‘ordinary’ people getting the best out of fellow ‘ordinary’ people. Look around you within schools, your community, your home, the local sportsfield, as well as in your organisations. These can be the very real testing grounds of leadership that exist beyond any traditional working day, and they are the natural habits of us all. These testing grounds offer us infinite opportunities to practise leadership in and out of our organisations and we should be using them.

Furthermore, the only person truly in charge of your development and your career as a leader is in fact you. Very often good leaders develop in spite of their organisations, not because of them.

So what can we do to become better at leading and thereby enhance our career prospects? Well there is no universal formula for success. Instead it is an individual and personal journey of self-development.

The central philosophy of The Leadership Trust is that "only when we know and can control ourselves can we begin to know, control and enable others". Our courses are designed to encourage people to ‘look into the mirror’, to see themselves how others see them and the consequent effects they may have on those around them.

Leadership development, like self-development, begins with a challenge, and The Leadership Trust has developed a model - available as a PowerPoint attachment on request - to illustrate how this works in practice.

We are all faced with CHALLENGES on a daily basis. Some are big, some are small. Some are personal, while others professional. How we deal with those challenges and how we go about handling their outcomes, whether success or failure, is crucial to our development as leaders. If the outcome is ‘success’ then we can either feel fulfilled and satisfied with peace of mind, or we can be left feeling flat and empty and simply wanting to move on to the next challenge. If the second scenario is the case, we are actually taking a trip down what is called, ‘LOSERS’ LOOP’. The same journey to ‘LOSER’S LOOP’ will be made if, while encountering the other side of the coin - ‘failure’, we don’t grasp it as an opportunity to learn, develop and grow from our past errors, but instead fill our mind with feelings of inadequacy and negativity. Messages we send ourselves such as, "I told you I couldn’t do that" and "I knew I was no good", only help us to travel further down ‘LOSER’S LOOP’. Furthermore, if we find ourselves continually re-visiting this place then we will become trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy; we will be what we think we are.

If we are repeatedly drawn to new challenges simply to gain personal recognition, money, status or power, then we are unlikely to grow from our experiences. This makes us contenders for ‘LOSER’S LOOP’ since we are likely to be secretly looking for reassurance and approval from others in the guise of trappings of wealth, status and power. Similarly, we are unlikely to engender respect in our peers and employees. Have you experienced being led by power-crazed individuals in or out of the workplace? How many of them did you ultimately come to respect? Or even trust?

We may be reluctant, on the other hand, to accept certain challenges that present themselves. This may stem from a fear of the consequences. What is important is that we realise that if we do avoid a challenge or are afraid of risk then we are missing out on the chance to gain the experience needed to lead well. By seeking out new adventures, and managing the two sides of success and failure positively, we will be practising and ultimately developing our leadership skills and our self-development. By planning each challenge with an understanding of what we want to learn from the experience, we will enhance our own leadership development.

When you draw the line to eradicate ‘LOSER’S LOOP’, you move into one of the four ‘selfs’ of self-development: SELF-AWARENESS. This is achieved once we gain an insight into our own strengths and development needs, and begin to understand what is happening to us in terms of our reactions and responses to external stimuli. Continuous reflection and analysis is not easy but our development as leaders depends on our ability to be brutally honest with ourselves. We need to be able to ask ourselves what our strengths and weaknesses are. If you work within an open, honest organisation, feedback from colleagues in the workplace is a good place to start. It might be difficult to hear feedback but this is where COURAGE will play a huge part in helping us along the way, and WILLPOWER will keep us wanting to learn more about ourselves and ultimately how our behaviour affects other people.

As our self-awareness increases, we will then find it easier to develop our SELF-CONTROL, to control the attitudes and behaviours we have identified as areas for development. This doesn’t mean that we must deny things like fear, but that we are in a position to be able to control the impulse towards it. All leaders wrestle with their inner conflicts which we may not even be aware of. Martin Luther King was known to have battled to overcome tendencies of hatred, anger and violence, but his determination came from an ability to be self-coping and emotionally independent from others. The key is to reach a state where you are no longer dependent or independent from others, but are interdependent on them. This means that we are able both to provide emotional support to others as well as to receive it ourselves, but are by no means dependent on either for our sense of self.

The emergent knowledge that we can know and control ourselves and our own behaviour, regardless of the situation that arises, inevitably leads us to a greater belief in ourselves and therefore boosts our SELF-CONFIDENCE.

Once we have a healthy level of self-confidence in place then we can feed SELF-REALISATION. This is the stage where we are really accentuating our known strengths, while minimising and controlling our weaknesses, and in doing so are realising our true potential. If we can maintain this state then we find that we are acting in a way that is consistent with our inner beliefs and conscience and we can therefore be AUTHENTIC TO SELF.

People who are authentic to self are the ones who stand up for their values, principles and standards, and are true to themselves. As a result they engender not only a tremendous amount of respect from others, but will possess SELF-RESPECT within themselves. Self-respect is at the centre of all that we do. When it is intact then we can stand and face the world with conviction and are not easily rocked by EXTERNAL PRESSURES.

It is important to keep maintaining your levels of self-respect once you have worked so hard to achieve it and a way that we can do this is by asking ourselves, at any point in time, the following questions:

· Where am I within the model of self-development?
· Where do I need to be within the model of self-development?
· What is it that is stopping me from being there?

It is necessary to continue re-visiting yourself and to keep picking up fresh challenges as the process of self-development is dynamic. It is rather like developing muscle tone and definition to your body - you must keep working at it!

As leaders we should be helping others to navigate their way around the model of self-development; to see where they currently are and what their development needs are to achieve this. We can use the analogy of a game of snakes and ladders for this. The snakes within the game represent ‘LOSER’S LOOP’ while the four ‘selfs’ represent the ladders that enable us to learn, develop and win our self-respect. The big difference of course is that self-development isn’t dependent on the luck of the die; we control it! We can choose at any time where we want to be and how we are feeling about it, provided we have the self-awareness to do so.

Self-development might seem like a tireless, perilous journey but the rewards will be great if you can persevere. The satisfaction and sense of achievement from leading more effectively not only develop us professionally, but personally too.

If you have been inspired to start the process, here are nine steps to becoming a better leader:

1. TAKE CHARGE. You are the only one who is really committed to your development, so make all the moves. Read a good book on leadership (we can recommend many). Ask, no demand, to go on a quality leadership development programme. Volunteer to take on a new project whenever you are able to do so.

2. DO A SWOT. Take time to carry out a stock-take of your strengths and weaknesses. Examine the opportunities and threats that face you in the immediate future (the next 12 months).

3. GET A MENTOR. It works for Jedi warriors and Buddhist monks, so why not for you! Seek out someone you respect and trust with sufficient knowledge and experience in or out of your workplace and ask them to be your mentor. Use them for feedback, advice and guidance.

4. SEEK OUT OPPORTUNITIES TO LEAD. Don’t restrict these opportunities to work. There are countless opportunities to practise in all sorts of situations. Become a school governor, join the parish council, get on the executive of the local branch of your institute or professional association.

5. KEEP A JOURNAL. A useful tool used by many leaders. Keep a daily record of what you have learnt, what you did well and what you could have done better. Use it to put down your thoughts, views, opinions and observations. It will be a valuable reference for years.

6. MAKE TIME TO THINK. We are often so busy doing that we never have the time to think. The doers cut a path through the jungle; thinkers climb the nearest tree, survey the scene and shout ‘wrong jungle!’. Find the time to climb trees rather than always felling them.

7. CREATE BALANCE. All work and no play makes Jack or Jill a dull leader. Make sure you create time to enjoy family and friends. You are a leader as a parent too, which gives extra opportunities to practise!

8. PRACTICE AND REFLECTION. Set time in your diary actively to practise your leadership skills with your team and reflect upon those experiences.

9. LEAD TO SERVE. Remember, one of the fundamental elements of leadership is the understanding that your role as leader is also to serve those very people you lead.

Donna Cox is PR Executive at The Leadership Trust, a leadership development training organisation based in Ross-on-Wye.

This article uses extracts from ‘Leadership in Management’, a booklet by Gareth Edwards and Paul Winter, which will be published by The Leadership Trust Foundation in October 2001.

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