It’s easy to forget that leadership is a skill. It seems to come naturally to some people, while others struggle with it. Many leaders just sort of end up in the role rather than seeking it out, and the skills that get them there might be more related to their expertise than leading people.
Those who struggle with effective leadership might imagine that it’s a binary thing – you either are a leader or you are not, they think, and some rest too easily with the idea that they are not. I’ve learned to be wary of any thoughts I have about myself or anyone that involve the verb “to be.” Any such totalizing statements, much like the dreaded superlatives (always, never, completely etc.), are always a bad bet in multiple choice questions and in life.
Leadership isn’t a quality that you’re either born with or will never have. It’s a set of skills that can be learned, honed, and updated.
If you find yourself managing people in your work or your life, there’s no better way to reduce the stress of it than to learn how to do it well.
There are a handful of rookie mistakes that leaders make which can cause a lot of suffering. Surprisingly, some people simply never learn to avoid those mistakes. In fact, anecdotally, it seems that leadership skills are often ignored until their absence starts to create problems in people’s lives. Don’t be that person.
Like many important things, there is no quick fix that allows you to go from being a “bad” leader to a “good” leader. Instead it’s more helpful to think of leadership as a practice like fitness, healthy eating, or playing the guitar. You start out at some level of skill. Some days will be better than others, some periods in your life will be more focused on leadership than others, but overall it can be considered a long-standing effort to be more effective and less stressed as a leader.
Here are a few ideas to add to your leadership repertoire.
1. Strong Leaders Are Self-Aware
The thinking mind is a chatty bugger, and it’s always out to protect you from perceived threats, real or imagined. Mostly imagined. For most people, increased responsibility at work, conflict and many other things that come along with leadership amp up the scary stories in our minds. Learning how to notice those stories and avoid getting hooked by them is a crucial tool for an effective leader. You can’t manage other people if you don’t manage your thinking mind first! Basic mindfulness practices can help with this one, but for those of us who are wracked with anxiety and difficult-to-ignore thinking minds, it may take more work to root out problematic thinking.
2. Strong Leaders Are Brave
Every day managers and leaders interact with people. That alone can be challenging! What’s more, one of the core functions of a leader is to solve problems and help people grow. These activities create a situation that ranges from uncomfortable to terrifying depending on one’s disposition. Strong leaders learn to do the right thing in the face of discomfort.
For example, several times in my career I’ve witnessed situations where the leadership of a company has struggled to make payroll on time or at all. Hoo boy! That’s a loaded situation that can involve tricky tactical issues from sending late checks to furloughs to layoffs. These tactics are often a difficult part of the leadership role, but the people-facing element of the situation can be a lot more difficult for many people to handle well.
In this example, those with a strong leadership practice tend to treat affected employees with a forthright, timely, transparent, and respectful approach. For many, responding this way involves a lot of vulnerability and fear. We fear angering people, disappointing them, or having them see us as a failure. We might even catastrophize the situation and imagine scenarios of retaliatory violence! So you see, it’s very brave indeed to weather these troubling thoughts and practice strong leadership in their midst. On the other hand, leaders who haven’t developed a tolerance for this type of internal vulnerability and fearful thinking might instead use a secretive, defensive, or obtuse approach. While this kind of behavior can alleviate the immediate discomfort that the more vulnerable approach produces, it can also kill employee morale and trust in leadership.
3. Strong Leaders Are Active Listeners
Leaders are meant to help people grow, and helping people grow requires some attention to one’s listening process. By default, most of us are not very good listeners, and conversations with peers can turn into a bizarre game of verbal jousting or simply trading one ups until both parties get tired. This is fine if the only goal is to interact socially. However, in conversations where you are in a leadership role, there is almost always more purpose to conversations. More often, there are several goals and they may be difficult to understand. To discern the meaning(s) behind the other person’s words and take effective action, leaders approach listening with a bit more vigor than they might otherwise.
Active listening is one effective process for a leader’s toolbox. Another really great set of conversation techniques can be found in the book Crucial Conversations. Whatever method you choose, you’ll find it much easier to engage with the people you lead if they feel that the environment is safe for them to speak their mind, and they feel heard and understood by you.