If you had to take a test to earn a license to lead, would you pass? When it comes to leadership, do you know the rules of the road, what all the traffic signs mean, and how to lead in inclement weather? Sadly enough, we probably require more training and knowledge for someone to drive a car than we do for them to lead people!
Now, just as getting a driver’s license doesn’t automatically make you an excellent driver, passing some imaginary leadership exam wouldn’t qualify you as an outstanding leader. However, it would at least signify that you have a basic level of knowledge to lead safely and not harm others (I see a Dilbert cartoon in here somewhere…). Here’s five critical areas where I think people need to have a basic level of competency in order to earn a license to lead:
1. Building Trust — If you know me or have read anything on this blog, you know that I’m a trust activist (a phrase recently coined by my friend Jon Mertz), and I believe that learning to build high-trust relationships is the defining competency of successful leaders in the 21st century. Being a person of integrity, competence, compassion, and reliability are all crucial elements of being trustworthy. Establishing trust in relationships is the ticket of admission for being a leader, it allows you to get in the game. Once you’re in the game you have the potential to make some great plays if you can do the other things in this list, which by the way, continually build and sustain trust in your leadership.
2. Setting clear goals — Whether it’s communicating a clear vision on the macro-level, or establishing specific goals and actions on a micro-level, good leaders understand that their people need a clear idea of the direction they’re heading and what they’re supposed to do. You’d be surprised at the number of leaders I speak with that express frustration over their people not performing up to expectations and readily admit that they haven’t established or communicated those expectations in the first place!
3. Flexing leadership style to the situation — One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to leadership. Depending on an employee’s level of competence and commitment on a given task or goal, leaders need to use a style that matches the needs of the employee. There will be times where leaders need to be more directive in their style when employees need specific instruction, and other times leaders need to use a more supportive style when the employee knows what to do but just needs a little reassurance. Treating everyone the same in all circumstances is not being “fair,” it’s being one-dimensional.
4. Listening — Just as a good driver pays attention to conditions of the road, pedestrians, and other drivers, top leaders pay attention to how their employees are doing by being a good listener. It’s amazing what you can learn about people by simply listening to them, but being a good listener takes effort. You have to learn to concentrate on what’s being said (or not said), being present in the moment and not letting your mind drift, checking your understanding by asking questions or paraphrasing, and listening to understand and be influenced rather than just waiting to make a counterpoint.
5. Giving feedback — Ken Blanchard likes to say that “Feedback is the breakfast of champions!” For leaders to develop their people into champions, they have to be comfortable in giving both positive and negative feedback. Generally speaking, it’s a whole lot easier (and fun) to deliver positive feedback. Everyone likes delivering good news! It’s a completely different story when it comes to delivering negative feedback. Most of us fall prey to sugar-coating negative feedback or being overly general and vague when discussing it with an employee. I’ve learned in my leadership journey that I do a disservice to the employee, and myself, when I sugar coat feedback. People often don’t pick up on the subtle clues we use when discussing tough situations so it’s better to deliver the feedback with candor and care so the employee knows exactly what they’re doing wrong and how they can improve.
These may be the “Big Five” when it comes to understanding the basics of leadership and earning a license to lead other people, but I know there are many other competencies that deserve to be on the test. What else would you test for before granting someone a license to lead? Feel free to join the discussion by leaving a comment.