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Have you ever seen a highly effective or inspirational leader and wondered how they do it? Was this person born a good leader? Perhaps they have a genetic advantage or how can I be more like this person? No matter how good they are, the reality is that they will have had to learn the same way that you and I do; through practice.
Before attempting to study the principles of effective leadership it is import to realise a simple fact: leadership is a skill. And like any skill, leadership requires continual practice and reflection to be improved. By recognising this, it will allow you to strategise and take a structured approach to consistently improving your ability as a leader.
That being said, how do you practice leadership and when do you get the opportunity? At first, this can seem like quite a daunting question, how do you actually practice leadership? The reality is that your average day is already presenting you with many chances to practice your leadership…
Leadership begins at home
First and foremost, leadership begins at home. If you study socially successful people, you will notice a trend; they are happy within themselves. Before you can make others happy, you must be happy within yourself. This principle extends to leadership as well, before you can lead others you must first ensure that you are meeting your own needs.
Cesar Millan talks about a formula for happiness for dogs, and that is exercise, discipline and affection. In that order. I believe that the very same formula is the foundation for happiness with humans also. Before you can lead others, you must first ensure you are capable of leading your own life. This will build your credibility and help cement the belief within yourself that you deserve respect and that it is in their best interests for people to follow you.
Set clear expectations
People are comfortable with boundaries, by clearly defining what you expect from people you are establishing yourself as a leader, by allowing them to be creative in achieving their goals you are investing your trust in that person.
Conversely, by failing to set expectations you are undermining your own ability to use discipline. How can you reasonably tell someone not to do something when you’ve never made it clear that they should not have been doing it in the first place? You might complain and think ‘well common sense dictates that you shouldn’t be doing…’ but don’t fool yourself; common sense has nothing to do with emotion. Better to get it right from the start then risk fostering resentment by disciplining someone when they feel it is unfair.
Some people may feel bad using discipline. Don’t. Remember that you are acting in the best interest of the pack. Besides, if you are correctly setting expectation then it’s more likely for them to respect you for asking them to follow the packs code.
Practice at work
Work is an excellent place to try and improve yourself. Most people don’t work because they want to, but because they have to. If you’re already at work, why not try make the most of the time and think about ways you can utilise that time to your benefit?
In the corporate world, most management types don’t have a clue how to lead people. If you are in a position where you have any sort of responsibility over others, like it or not you’re going to have an emotional impact on them. If you want people to invest in you, then you must invest in them – take an interest and consider their feelings, set them tasks but don’t micromanage them through it, by allowing people to be creative in meeting their objectives you are placing trust in them and implying that you expect them to succeed, when done correctly people will want to live up to your expectations.
It is inevitable that at some point you will have to remind someone of your rules, but if you’ve established these from the beginning and enforce these in a fair and consistent manner then people will not resent you for it.
Don’t be naive and think that being nice will make everyone happy. People want a leader with credibility and purpose, it keeps them reassured and allows them to relax. Although their questions may never be voiced, people want to know – do you know where you are going? If the shit hit the fan, would you panic or retain your cool?
Reflect on past experience
When I first started training at work I had no idea just how much I was learning. It wasn’t until I started reading books on leadership and influence that I realised that many of the idea’s I was reading were already part of my belief system.
However, reading enabled me to consciously think about them and then start reflecting about past experience. This reflection allows you to look at your past mistakes and decide on what would have been the wisest course of action, it enables you to understand peoples motivation and needs.
Reflection is a vital part of any learning process, this is when you can sit down and really compute what happened and why. In the heat of the moment, things can happen so fast that you don’t have time to think, only react. In order to fully understand the significance of any event, you need to time ponder and reflect upon it.
Understand peoples needs
Like dogs, everyone has different needs. Just as a sheepdog has a innate desire to herd things or a beagle will be driven to use its tracking skills, an I.T geek fresh out of university for example, would be dying to show off his mad keyboard skillz or ability to troubleshoot PC problems. As a leader it is your responsibility to be able to read peoples needs and indulge them. Take the I.T geek example, if you want this person to be motivated and efficient, you need to provide him with tasks that allow him to utilise that knowledge.
What happens if someone is not given the chance to use their skills or hard earned knowledge? Everyone has different personalities and tolerances, however you need to understand that when someone that feels they are an authority on a subject, it is extremely difficult for them not to voice their opinion – they want to be heard. If you don’t recognise this need, then you run the danger of it being released in a negative way. Instead of being helpful, the I.T geek might instead contradict or undermine you, left alone this will slowly chip away at your authority.
Better to recognise this early and use it to your advantage. By being creative in thinking of ways to allow people to express themselves and fulfil their needs, you are looking after their emotional wellbeing and helping to keep them balanced.
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