Here’s an interesting problem in today’s business world: One of the most indispensable skills for career advancement as well as for delivering successful projects is rarely taught at the university level.
I’m talking about leadership.
One reason many institutions don’t even attempt to teach leadership is that it far transcends academic instruction. This is a problem, however, because anyone in business (and certainly in management), will benefit from being a competent leader.
First, a point of clarification: Managing and leadership are two different things. Managers produce results, while leaders guide people, processes and organizations into the future. You can teach a large percentage of people how to manage, but teaching someone how to lead is a more challenging proposition.
Leaders Must Change and Adapt
One of the reasons leadership is so difficult to teach is that it encompasses an ever-evolving family of skills. The same abilities and techniques that brought you to a point in your career very likely will not carry you to the next level. You have to change and adapt as a leader, and the truth is that only a few leaders do this successfully.
For example, a project or organization that is rife with infighting might benefit from a strong, directing leadership style; but that same autocratic style might be counterproductive to an organization that is already performing smoothly. Projects or organizations that are running well usually benefit more from a supportive, participative style of leadership.
Your style of leadership has to adapt to the project or organization throughout the lifecycle, and this is one of the hardest things for leaders to get right. You could find that being a strong, directing leader powered your career at one stage, but the trick here is to stay attuned to when it stops working so you can adapt and use a more effective tactic.
Examples of Leadership Evolutions
When I was in college, I worked at a Big Blue tech giant. During that time, the company had a CEO who achieved his position by shooting up through the ranks. But once at the helm, he struggled in his new role at the top. And this was at a time when the tech world was evolving at a breakneck pace (e.g., Halt and Catch Fire). Unfortunately, our CEO could only see things through the lens of what had worked in the past. The company seemed to be slowly circling the drain in dramatic fashion.
Shortly after the CEO departed the company, they had the foresight to bring in a new CEO from a completely unrelated industry, and the turnaround was stunning. His leadership style was completely different. He adopted a style that was nearly opposite from his predecessor, and the company’s performance (and stock price) skyrocketed back to health.
Stepping Up and Mobilizing
Managers who want to develop into real leaders face a formidable task. It is difficult, but it doesn’t have to be complex. The acclaimed Harvard leadership guru, John P. Kotter, simplified it into three steps that leaders need to effectively perform:
- Establish a vision.
- Align people to that vision.
- Motivate them to perform and to achieve the vision.
This simple strategy remains as relevant for CEOs of large organizations as it does for first time project management leaders.
In Walter Isaacon’s outstanding biography of Steve Jobs, he tells of a time that the Apple founder had become marginalized in his own company by a new CEO. Finally, Jobs went to key designers and engineers and told them, “Everything you have ever done in your career has been [worthless]. Come work on a secret project with me and let’s change the world.” Those two sentences encapsulated Kotter’s strategy beautifully. Jobs set out a vision of changing the world; identified with the engineers’ frustration that they had not yet had the impact they craved, and offered them a way to “put a ding in the universe.” Then he issued a pointed call to action.
If You Want to Lead…
I don’t believe that everyone can learn to lead effectively. There has to be some natural ability there for a strong leader to emerge. Some people have greater leadership aptitude than others, but still, there are many elements of leadership that have to be learned. And there is no way to learn them without getting out there, trying, failing, retooling, and repeating.
If you seriously want to grow as a leader, you’ll have to get out there and take initiative. Look for opportunities to lead in your organization. If none are apparent, consider volunteer work, where opportunities abound. Another way to flex your leadership muscle is to find ways to care for your team and the work they do, and nurture teamwork. People are more important than tasks, and if you can prove to be someone who motivates people, you’re on your way.
Even after you become a proven great leader, the process of developing great skills and learning from your successes and failures is never ending. But it’s this process of growing in your role that’s so incredibly rewarding—something that you can continue to develop for the rest of your life.