The fundamental skills that growing leaders pursue are often not the right ones.
When I encounter new leaders, or those looking to develop past their current challenges — and I hope that’s every one of us! — I often find that they are asking the wrong questions.
- How can I be more confident as I direct my team?
- How will my team respect me if I’m spending my time managing, and they are doing all the work?
- How can I get better at addressing a group or having hard conversations?
Perhaps I should rephrase something.
These are not the wrong questions for you to be asking as a leader that wants to improve. But, you may be asking them at the wrong time.
You see, the questions above, while all too common, are tactical skills that we can and should develop over time. The problem with a premature focus on developing our tactical skills is that we often neglect those foundational skills that should come first.
We get so caught up in learning more, addressing our real or perceived shortcomings as a leader that we skip right past the core principles that enable us to connect with people and employ these skills we are working so hard to improve.
Ask yourself this: What is leadership? I don’t mean the dictionary definition. No, instead, ask: What is the purpose of leadership?
The purpose of leadership is to enact change.
A team leader’s purpose is to change the function of a team in some positive way. If it’s an entirely new team, you must create and organize that team from the ground up. You will create something from nothing. If it is an existing team, you may be challenged to turn around an organization plagued by failures or underperformance. You will create something positive from something negative.
If you are a military leader, your purpose is to enact change within the mission. The mission may be training, humanitarian aid, or battlefield combat. The scope may be local, regional, or global, and the impact range from limited to geopolitical consequences.
If you are a thought leader, you enact change in how people think. You produce changes in behaviors by introducing changes in thought, and by challenging the accepted, by disrupting the status quo.
Leadership is about bringing about change. But change makes people uncomfortable.
If you need to be accepted as a leader and want people to follow you, it requires influence. When you need to introduce changes that people are likely to be hesitant or even resistant to, again, you need influence. The stronger the change, the more impactful it is, the more influence you will require.
To build influence with people, and open the possibility to lead them, they must first trust you. Trust is a measure of our influence, and influence a measure of our leadership capability.
It is the fuel by which we will drive change, and we will build and maintain it by careful attention to three principles.
Influence is built on trust, and trust must be mutual.
Consider what the ultimate effect is when someone, either consciously or unconsciously, allows you to influence them. That person is relinquishing some of their own control. Just enough to say, “When you talk, I’m willing to listen and really consider what you have to say.”
They are voluntarily giving you a limited ability to exert control over the way they think, behave, and act.
These are not things that we relinquish to others lightly, and never voluntarily to someone who we don’t trust.
So, your first guiding principle is to build a strong foundation of trust in all of your relationships.
Start by trusting others.
If you struggle with extending that trust to others, don’t be surprised if they find it difficult to trust you in turn. People may not be able to articulate their reasons. It may be our innate survival mechanisms kicking in. We just sense something is off, and our guard goes up.
Be authentic in word and deed.
If you fall into the trap of saying things because you feel they are what you should say, but you don’t believe them yourself, your actions will tell. Speak honestly and openly with everyone. Then follow-through. Ensure your actions match your words.
Meet your obligations.
Do the things you say you will do. If you commit to something, hold yourself accountable. When you fail, own that failure, apologize, and do better next time. Don’t promise to do better next time. Do better next time.
Be transparent when possible, and honest always.
In business, as in life, there are times when you must be cautious as to where, when, and how you share information. It doesn’t require a security clearance to realize that it is not always prudent, or sometimes even legally permissible, to share everything. The further you advance in your career, the more this prudence becomes necessary, as the impact and importance of the information you acquire will continue to grow.
Share information with those around you, when it is prudent and justified to do so, and be honest about the prevailing situation when it is not.
Secrets are the seed that destroys trust. Don’t believe me? Watch any episode of any soap opera, from any decade, since the advent of the television. Someone has a secret. Someone else will find out. There will be drama and tears.
Trust others. Be trustworthy in return. If change is required, and you would lead that change, start by building influence based on trust.
Integrity means both to be honest and forthright. It can also be used to describe something both whole and sound, as in the structural integrity of an object.
You must live both definitions if you want to retain the trust and influence you build with people. I’m sure it’s obvious how acting without integrity, being dishonest or secretive, would damage trust, and thereby damage your influence. It may not be clear what I mean by structural integrity, however.
Consider the structural integrity of a building, such as your house. If it’s subjected to enough force to twist or push the structure beyond its expected limits of movement, it can be damaged or destroyed. Earthquakes, tornados, and hurricanes can all twist a building in ways it wasn’t intended to withstand.
If a building weathers one of these events and is not destroyed outright, the structural integrity may still be compromised. Cracks in the walls or foundation may appear. It’s now weaker than it once was. The next stressful even may break it.
Your own integrity reaches beyond the more straightforward concepts of truthfulness and lack of guile. You also need to strive for structural integrity in the building that is your personality, your reputation, your self.
To do this, you must understand your core values and the character you exhibit by living those values. When we are well attuned to our own values and self-aware enough to live those values via our character and actions, we reinforce the structural integrity of who we are to everyone around us.
Fail to be consistent and congruent with those values in all that we say or do, and we introduce cracks in the outward appearance we present to others.
You probably wouldn’t venture inside a building that looks like it may fall down at any second. Nor should we expect anyone to follow our leadership if we say one thing and do another.
When we are inconsistent between our values and our actions, we let cracks form in the foundations of trust we are building with those around us.
Authenticity is the quality we associate with people that we inherently view as not only trustworthy but open and consistent. We see that they hold themselves accountable to their own values and that they share their own successes and failures with us honestly.
This sounds quite similar to integrity, right? Absolutely, but there’s a severe trap, a dark pit we can fall into if we aren’t careful. As we push ourselves to better understand our own values, and live by those values personally and professionally, we build a reputation for integrity. That integrity becomes a part of our outward persona, the face we show the world.
So far, so good. But what happens when we fail in some way or get something wrong?
The rise of social media has done us no favors here. How many people do you know that live one life, and show the world another? Their outward persona looks smiling, happy, and wonderful. Meanwhile, their life is a hectic mess.
They are inauthentic. And we know it.
As an aspiring leader, you need to reconcile your relationship with failure. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Be prepared to do things you don’t want to do. You will have conversations where you’d rather be anywhere else.
And, sometimes, you’ll have to admit you were wrong. Tell someone that respects you that you don’t have the answer. Be open about your failings and vulnerabilities.
Because these situations where you will exhibit the above behaviors and reactions will absolutely occur. They happen to everyone. If you suppress them, try to hide them, or downplay their impact on you, then you appear or become inauthentic as well.
Don’t fall into the trap of projecting a false outward image when things go wrong to protect the perception that everything you do is a success.
It’s not reality, and it doesn’t help you or the people you would lead.
Leadership Requires Strong Relationships
If you want the people around you to recognize you as a leader, you must be both trustworthy and trusting. You must build influence based on that trust. You must develop and practice the integrity that will support you as you try to live by your core values, and show those around you that you are worthy of their trust, and you won’t violate or break it.
Above all, you must be authentic. Share your successes, but don’t forget to openly share your failures as well. Be who you want to be, exactly who you say you are, and show those around you that word and deed, belief and action, are one and the same for you.
This article is part of my 4-part series that answers the question: Where Does Leadership Start? If you enjoyed this content and want more from me, you can join my group of Intentional Leaders here.
Ready for more? The final article in this series will be published next week!
If you are ready to recognize yourself as a leader, you’ll want to read my book: You Are a Leader: Applying Military Leadership Principles to Professional Life.
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Matthew Overlund writes non-fiction and coaches professional development for new (or not so new) managers at Leadership & Vision, where he helps amazing people realize a higher potential as they evolve from getting things done to making things happen.
When he’s not writing, coaching, or generally masquerading as a code jockey, solutions architect, or product manager, Matt occasionally writes, thinks, reads, or talks about fiction — where understanding the characters on the page help him try to understand the characters in the world.