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In our work we often meet people who don’t view themselves as leaders and yet they are, having perhaps unknowingly transitioned into a leadership role. People often have little choice as to whether or not they become a leader, the decision being largely out of their hands. Who makes the decision? Other people – colleagues, staff, clients and those who are affected in some why by what the leader says and does. Most senior people in an organisation will be expected to act as a leader by those beneath them in the hierarchy, irrespective of the nature of the hierarchy. You don’t need the title ‘leader’ to be a leader, and in some cases those with the title struggle to fulfil the role.

However becoming an effective leader – a great leader – is very much a conscious choice. The jury making that decision will still be the masses (largely your direct reports), but with determination, humility and a desire to learn and improve oneself we believe most people can take the step up. Nevertheless, the path to becoming an effective leader is a challenging one.

Our role as coaches has given us the opportunity to work with a significant number of aspiring and established leaders across a number of sectors. From our work a number of common challenges have emerged that most leaders face in their leadership journey as shown in the diagram below. In this article we explore the nature of these challenges and how leaders deal with them.

Leadership Style

There are many frameworks for leadership; the number of books and articles on the subject is extensive. However, in studying many forms of leadership we see that they have one thing in common – leadership is about relationships, specifically the relationship between the leader and everyone else. Leaders tend to appeal to the heart, and seek to inspire and motivate people towards some future vision. Leadership is best, and perhaps easiest, if you act in a way that is genuine to who you are. People can sense if it’s an act. And for the leader, it takes energy to be someone they are not. This doesn’t mean that leadership is effortless or that you may need to push yourself to do some things that are outside your comfort zone. It’s just that it can be very draining to act as someone else for an extended period of time.

Being a leader and yet true to oneself can initially seem contradictory. Those who are more introverted may think they need to change their character and become supremely confident in public speaking in order to inspire and motivate others. But there are other ways to lead effectively; for example, expressing your confidence in someone during a one to one conversation can be hugely powerful. There are certain things a leader should do, but there is great flexibility in how they might be done, which allows ordinary people to become extraordinary leaders.

If you want to remain true to yourself then you will need to think about how you apply your personal values at work. If you and other leaders share similar views and values on what’s really important it makes the whole experience more enjoyable and effective for the entire leadership team. However, when there are material divisions, relationships can become strained and much energy expended on resolving issues; issues that often arise from differences in values that ultimately impact the business ethos and direction. Common areas where personal values can be tested are in the treatment of staff and clients.

Impact On Others

We all have blind spots, particularly when it comes to our impact on others. Given the importance of relationships in being an effective leader, it’s imperative that leaders understand how their behaviours might motivate and demotivate members of their team. Sometimes leaders can have great intentions but undermine themselves by unwittingly expressing themselves or acting in unhelpful ways.

Seeking feedback and better still – 360 feedback – is a great start. Make sure you gather feedback from a broad spectrum of people, from those with whom you don’t see eye to eye to those you know will provide constructive pointers on your development areas. A particularly useful question to ask people, utilised in the 360 leadership feedback questionnaire developed by Kouzes & Posner (founders of the Leadership Practices Inventory or LPI 360) is ‘How do my behaviours affect your performance?’ Sounds like an obvious question . . . but from our experience it’s rarely asked in such a concise manner.

Psychometrics, such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator or Insights personality profile (both based on the work of Swiss Psychoanalyst and Psychiatrist Carl Jung), can help us understand how we might process information, make decisions and communicate. The more we understand ourselves the more we can modify our style to accommodate the preferences of others. And there are of course many other tools available that can help us understand our personality characteristics and how we might apply or finesse them to enhance our relationships.

However, an enhanced level of awareness will only be of benefit if we adopt a growth mindset and proactively work on our behaviours to strengthen and build relationships. This takes time and effort and can only be sustained if we truly believe in the benefits, are humble in acknowledging our weaknesses, and follow through with action. We find Dr Carol Dweck’s (Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University) explanation of the distinction between Fixed and Growth mindsets particularly helpful in exploring such issues. Dr Dweck asserts that when we adopt a Growth mindset, we are prepared to apply energy in stretching ourselves, to regard feedback as a rich source of personal development and seek out challenges without fear of failure. This is a state of mind that we can all aspire to embrace . . . but it takes practice.

Leading the Team

In most cases the leader will be working with a team – sometimes a very senior team – that has responsibility for operations or a specialist area such as product development, distribution or business growth. At the apex of the organisation the leader will need to ensure their team has, in aggregate, the necessary technical and business skills to run the company. Moreover, this team will need to exhibit individual and collective leadership skills. This should be self-evident but is not always the case.

Often the leader will inherit an existing team. They may already have good relationships with existing team members, but may face some resentment (see below). They may also come to the conclusion that the team has some weaknesses in the areas discussed above which will require change. People issues are always a challenge, but such challenges are magnified when dealing with those close to you. Changing the formation of an existing team can be difficult but the leader’s job is to challenge the status quo which may involve reconfiguring the team for the sake of the greater good. Becoming comfortable with the discomfort of change is imperative if the leader is to demonstrate effectiveness and survive in their role.

Building Resilience

Even the most experienced leaders face setback and adversity. Like a top athlete, leaders need to keep their minds and bodies in good shape to perform at their best and overcome the inevitable challenges. The basics of maintaining a regular, quality sleep routine, eating healthily and exercising regularly should not be underestimated.

In working with clients we have found that those leaders who have developed an awareness of how their internal ‘energy battery’ becomes depleted and recharged are most capable of applying effective strategies to help them cope with the demands of leadership. Such leaders tend to have an increased level of Emotional Intelligence(EI), with studies indicating that higher levels of EI can be a driver of increased performance. It’s an area that we often explore with clients, drawing on the work of Daniel Goleman who popularised this topic in 1995 with his book, unsurprisingly entitled ‘Emotional Intelligence’.

Our clients also tell us that developing an effective support network within and beyond work can be very helpful; relying on those they can trust to share their fears, challenges and plans. As coaches we are part of that support structure, but we encourage our clients to develop a network that will sustain them once our work with them has come to a natural conclusion.

Loneliness of Leadership

Research indicates that many leaders experience feelings of loneliness and isolation, even though they are often surrounded by colleagues at work. It can help if the leader feels that colleagues share the same vision and values as they do, as this can create supportive emotional connections. But even then, it is the leader who has ultimate responsibility for their organisation or team, making decisions that may affect the livelihoods of those who work for them.

Feelings of isolation can often be exacerbated when a leader has been selected from peers that they have worked with for a number of years. The emergent leader may feel awkward in their new role. How do they act as leader to former colleagues? Should they still be ‘friends’? How do they deal with the resentment (real or perceived) triggered by their appointment?

Other leaders will feel the same and may be facing or have faced similar challenges. When building your support network it can therefore be helpful to include other leaders, either within or out with your organisation.

However perhaps we should accept that some element of loneliness is inherent in the leader’s role. In some ways it can be helpful to be slightly distant from your colleagues – leaders need to make some tough decisions for the benefit of the business as a whole and distance can bring an element of objectivity.

Final Thoughts

Stepping up to leadership can be challenging, but what we do know from research (conducted by Kouzes and Posner) is that leadership is learnable. We might stand in awe of those who demonstrate seemingly innate leadership skills but the reality is that with a growth mindset you can be an extraordinary leader too. You can choose to develop your approach by seeking feedback, drawing on the example of those who lead effectively, educating yourself in the areas that you need to enhance and embracing experiences that will stretch your leadership capacity and capability. There will of course be setbacks along the way which is why a support network is so crucial. Needless to say it is also worth adding that the journey to leadership effectiveness is a life-long pursuit that takes patience, practice and perseverance.

Russell Borland & Thomas Chalmers

How to be an Effective Leader
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