Some people define leadership as the process of being thrown in over your head…and surviving. In some respects, that’s very true. After all, when you’re in a leadership role you’re in an ambiguous place that doesn’t have answers, yet you feel like you’re supposed to know everything. Your future as a leader depends on how you face the things you don’t know how to do.
The expanded demands of leadership create a gap between the way you are currently working and the way you must work to move ahead. That gap is filled with self-doubt, indecision, and ego.
In such a scenario, many leaders feel compelled to do things “the old way” – the way they would have done things prior to the leadership role. Unfortunately, “the old way,” which usually resides in our comfort zone, often leads to our downfall. In order to move forward and grow as a leader, you must confront the unknown, step into your fears, and work your way through to the solution. Does this guarantee that you’ll succeed? Of course not! However, it is the ability to move forward into your incompetence that separates the average leader from the exceptional leader.
In today’s turbulent economy, leaders need to become more resilient at handling the extremely high demands of their job and the ever-changing business landscape. Use the following seven principles to sharpen your leadership skills so you can handle any challenge that comes your way.
1) Get clear on your direction
Direction consists of where you want to end up at a personal and professional level. Direction provides purpose, energy, and hope. It also provides a criterion for making decisions. Unfortunately, as the stresses of work and life compile, many people lose sight of their direction. You need to consider what success looks like for your whole life, not just your job.
To get clear on your direction, imagine how you’d like your work and life to be in five to ten years. What are you doing? Who is around you? Where are you? What do you feel proud of? Being clear on what you want personally can help you get through the ambiguities that your work puts in front of you.
Likewise, your business needs clarity of direction. It is easier for organizations to move forward if they are clear on their mission, vision, goals and priorities. Only by the leadership team developing and sharing the direction, can they create the alignment needed to get employee commitment. Clear direction, personally and organizationally, provides the energy needed to overcome obstacles.
2) Step into your incompetence
One of the greatest challenges of leadership is that your success hinges on your ability to do things you are not yet good at. This is in direct contrast to the standard work model, where people want others to perceive them as some extraordinary leader who has all the answers. The reality is that leaders do not have the answers; rather, they are adept at finding the answers and then moving forward.
Finding the answers and stepping into your incompetence takes courage. A good way to push yourself to take the leap is to sign up for projects that will force you to stretch and learn new skills. Ask others on the project team to hold you accountable for your results. Use the experience to force yourself to grow.
The same concept holds true for the business itself. Look at avenues in which the company can expand. Are there risks the business needs to take? Can you enhance a current service or product? Is there a business growth issue you’ve been avoiding? Let your direction stretch your capabilities so you can best meet the needs of tomorrow’s consumers.
3) Revisit your values
If you were to lose your title, your office, and your car, who would you be? What would you still have when the outward leadership persona of you is gone? Some people feel empty when the external trappings are gone. They have engrossed themselves in their work for so long that they have forgotten what they stand for and what is really important to them.
Values, which can include things like integrity, financial stability, family, community involvement, meaningful work, innovation, and personal development, play a key role in defining who you are. You need to get clear on your values so you can stay true to yourself when you face difficult decisions.
In addition to mere identifying your values, you must also examine how your behaviors support your values. After all, it is one thing to say you value honesty; it is another to take a stand in the midst of a business decision that would benefit you if you were dishonest. If you say you value honesty or any other value, then define specific behaviors that demonstrate that value.
Similarly, a company needs values as well. Businesses that are confused about their values typically don’t survive in a changing marketplace. Identify the values your company stands for and then examine how you and your employees display those values to your customers and other stakeholders. Only when your values and actions are aligned can your company grow and attain results that matter most.
4) Develop a learning mindset
How do you approach obstacles? Do you see them as burdens, inconveniences, or opportunities? This question is important because your mindset regarding challenges plays a big role in your future success.
The “Oh no” leaders view everything as an attack on themselves. They spend their time protecting themselves and blaming others. The “Oh well” leaders take the challenges in stride and do the needed work, but they overlook the long-term benefits of the experience. The “Oh wow” leaders respond to the event with interest and learning rather than judgment and blame. They ask “why” and “how” questions in order to use the event as an opportunity to better themselves. These leaders are in the habit of asking: “what can I learn from this experience?” Which kind of leader are you?
Strive to be an “Oh wow” leader and apply what you learn from the challenge to your business. Encourage everyone on your team to develop the same mindset. When people in your organization don’t feel blamed, they develop the confidence and freedom to think creatively and take the risks necessary to grow the business.
5) Maintain and improve relationships
Every leader is aware of the high costs of losing contact with the customer. However, in times of stress, many leaders tend to ignore some of the key relationships in their personal life.
Building a relationship doesn’t need to be difficult. Plan out times for friends and family. A milkshake, a greeting card, a walk in the park, or a $10 shopping spree can do wonders to enhance relationships. Creating moments with friends, family and colleagues creates a nourishing effect that sustains you through a challenge or difficult decision.
Take your relationship building skills a step further by encouraging your staff to follow your lead. Reinforce the fact that in any organization, relationships need to be nurtured on a regular basis – during good times and bad. Encourage your team to maintain contact with customers, suppliers, and partners. Make yourself accessible to your team to prove that you value relationships and are there to help.
6) Increase your knowledge/skills
Learning new skills and increasing your knowledge base has the power to lift you out of the situation you are in. Important areas to develop include communications, problem solving skills, and resiliency skills. Some times just learning something you have always dreamed of doing, like pottery or music, can have positive impact on your overall outlook.
Also, work related skills that can help include how to lead change, how to delegate and create accountability, how to build positive communications, and how to set the direction. Realize that learning is not just about book or classroom teaching. Some of the best learning will occur on the job. Additional development options include attending a seminar, bringing in a coach or consultant, or learning from a mentor.
As a whole, your business must continually learn as well. As your company adds or removes operational layers or departments, everyone will need to know how to change and develop new skills. Some learning only requires that you give team members the time to work together. Broader issues may require investing in training for a particular department or the entire organization. If it’s an issue that affects only one or two people, consider bringing in an individual coach. If a leadership issue needs be addressed, a retreat may be appropriate. Remember, the concept that knowledge is power applies to both people and businesses.
7) Take Action
Proactively making decisions and moving forward in spite of uncertainty requires courage. Unfortunately, many leaders spend so much time fighting their own situation and avoiding their true responsibilities that they never get to the business of leading the organization.
Clearly identify the issues you are avoiding, confront them, and then take action to overcome them. If you make a mistake, learn from it and start the process over again. Once you take the first step, you begin a learning cycle for yourself and your business that continues as you and your company grow.
Lead Through Change
Organizations do not change until leaders change. And, you can’t become a better leader if you are unwilling to face your doubts and weaknesses. When you apply the seven principles of leadership resiliency to you and your business, you transform your current challenges into the building blocks for your ongoing success.
Dave Jennings, PhD, founder of Business Acumen, Inc., offers executive coaching, consulting, speaking, and training in the areas of leadership, communications, and change management. He helps organizations build more effective teams and increase bottom-line results. He works with leaders around the world. His clients have included Deloitte and Touche, Panasonic, Hewlett- Packard, and Microsoft. Reach him at www.business-acumen.com or