Leadership Can Be Learned

“Truly effective leaders in the years ahead will have personas determined by strong values and belief in the capacity of individuals to grow.”
Richard Beckhard

Since the beginning of time, people have wondered if leaders are born or if leaders are made. Hundreds of books and hundreds of research studies have addressed this question as well. I know. I’ve read them.

So what is the RIGHT answer? I think I know … and that is … a few people are “born leaders.” They’re more “naturally inclined” to be leaders. But most leaders are “made.” Somehow or other they learned how to be leaders. And I believe leadership is teachable and leadership skills are learnable.

If you do a few simple things, you will become a leader … and a very effective one at that. You’ve got to …

=> 1. Show a brighter future.

Now that sounds pretty fancy and theoretical. But it’s not. It’s simply a matter of letting people know there’s something out there that is better than what they have right now. Help them see it, feel it, smell it, taste it, and touch it. The more vividly they “see” a brighter future, the more excited they become in helping you make that future a reality.

In fact, you may have used this strategy and didn’t even know you were doing it. If, for example, you were working lots of extra hours to complete a project, and if your spouse was having a hard time with your schedule, you may have reminded your spouse of the week’s vacation that was coming right after the project was turned in. You were showing a brighter future.

Whether you use a brighter future to boost productivity, change behavior, or just plain encourage someone, it almost always works.

It’s like the story of two men, both seriously ill, who occupied the same hospital room. One man was allowed to sit up in his bed for an hour each afternoon to help drain the fluid from his lungs. His bed was next to the room’s only window. The other man had to spend all his time flat on his back.

The men talked for hours on end. They spoke of their wives and families, their homes, their jobs, their involvement in the military service, where they had been on vacation.

Every afternoon, when the man in the bed by the window could sit up, he would pass the time by describing to his roommate all the things he could see outside the window. The man in the other bed began to live for those one-hour periods where his world would be broadened and enlivened by all the activity and color of the world outside.

The window overlooked a park with a lovely lake. Ducks and swans played on the water while children sailed their model boats. Young lovers walked arm in arm amidst flowers of every color, and a fine view of the city skyline could be seen in the distance.

As the man by the window described all this in exquisite detail, the man on the other side of the room would close his eyes and imagine this picturesque scene. One warm afternoon, the man by the window described a parade passing by. Although the other man could not hear the band, he could see it in his mind’s eye as the gentleman by the window portrayed it with descriptive words.

Days, weeks and months passed. One morning, the day nurse arrived to bring water for their baths only to find the lifeless body of the man by the window, who had died peacefully in his sleep. She was saddened and called the hospital attendants to take the body away.

As soon as it seemed appropriate, the other man asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse was happy to make the switch, and after making sure he was comfortable, she left him alone. Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look at the real world outside. He strained to slowly turn and look out the window beside the bed. It faced a blank wall.

The man asked the nurse what could have compelled his deceased roommate to describe such wonderful things outside this window when there was nothing there. The nurse said she didn’t know. She just knew the man was blind and could not even see the wall. “Perhaps,” she said, “he just wanted to encourage you.”

So your leadership begins by painting a picture of a brighter future, and then …

=> 2. Reinforce the brighter future over and over again.

It’s one of the key things author Warren Bennis discovered when he interviewed 90 leaders. The effective leader does not offer some vision of the future a single time and leave it at that. No, he repeats it over and over again.

It’s what the Captain of the Australian yacht team did to wrest the America’s cup away from the United States … a cup the U.S. held for 132 years. As silly as it sounds, the Captain got his team to visualize every night for 15 minutes for two years … being out in front … winning the cup. The more they visualized it, the more real their dream became. In fact, they finished many of their visualizations with their hearts racing and pulse pounding, and they finished the race … out front and winning.

=> 3. Emphasize the negativity of the alternative.

Consultant Michael Podolinsky gives several examples of that. For example, if you’ve got a second shift that keeps outperforming the first shift by 10%, you might say something like this to your crew, “If we can beat the second shift in the next quarter, I will give each of you an extra day off for your annual leave. If we miss the target and the second shift still outperforms us, we’ll have to work weekends the following month until we equal their production.” As Michael says, “It’s a big incentive to win, a bigger incentive not to lose.”

If you’ve got a child who is coasting in school and wearing a highly inappropriate hair style, you might try, “I’ll make a deal with you. If you get your grades up to an ‘A’ level and keep them there until the end of the year, I’ll get you a new iPod Nano and back off about your hair style. If you don’t get your grades up, I get to say how your hair will look for the rest of the year.” As Michael puts it, “If you lose the bet, you have an ‘A’ student with weird hair. If you win, you have a clean cut ‘B’ student. Seems like you win either way.”

=> 4. Empower people with choice.

Effective leaders aren’t control freaks. They encourage and empower people to be co-creators of the brighter future. It gets them excited.

And as famed auto maker Walter P. Chrysler noted almost 100 years ago, “I feel sorry for the person who can’t get genuinely excited about his work. Not only will he never be satisfied, but he will never achieve anything worthwhile.”

One of the ways you get people excited is to empower them with choice. In other words, you don’t simply shove your vision down their throats. You don’t say, in effect, “Take it or leave it.” You ask them for their input on shaping the future.

And this is critical!!! You don’t ask how they would do it. That will only get you ONE answer, and they’ll resent it if you don’t accept and implement their ONE answer. Instead, ask for THREE RIGHT answers. That way, when you pick or incorporate some or all of their RIGHT answers, their commitment to implementation and follow-through goes through the roof.

So ask people for their input and choices and right answers, and then listen. And that’s tough for a lot of leaders. As American author Alice Duer Miller noted, “People love to talk but hate to listen.”

=> 5. Turn mistakes into lessons.

If you’re going to empower people to think more and do more without your direct supervision, they’re going to make some mistakes. It’s an inevitable part of the learning process.

But the research on effective leaders makes an interesting point. Effective leaders don’t use the word “failure.” Oh sure, they talk about mistakes, but they don’t talk about “failure.” That’s a road leading to nowhere. As one leader said, “A mistake is just another way of doing things.”

Effective leaders legitimize mistakes and illuminate mistakes. One leader did that by setting up a cannon-like device in the company. Every time someone made a mistake, they were to write down what they learned from that mistake and set off the cannon. The explosions could be heard throughout the plant throughout the day … letting people know that mistakes are okay … just as long as you learn from them.

And finally …

=> 6. Acknowledge the contributions of others.

No one ever outgrows the need for acknowledgement, appreciation, and approval. And wise leaders know that. They know they can’t expect people to be innovative, self-starting, peak performing, company-minded players if they, the leaders, aren’t sincere and generous in their recognition and rewards.

IBM knew that a long time ago when they published their little 22-page book outlining “The IBM Way” where it encouraged people to share their suggestions on how the company could be improved. And between 1975 and 1984, IBM saved $300 million thanks to the suggestions of its employees … and it gave $60 million to those employees who came up with the ideas. The employees soon learned that their ideas were expected and appreciated. Every suggestion was acknowledged, even if it wasn’t used, no matter how ridiculous the suggestion might have seemed. No one was made to feel that his/her idea did not matter.

The School Board in Palo Alto got similarly amazing results when they acknowledged the contribution of others. As a major issue was facing the community, volunteers went door to door asking homeowners to place a large sign on their lawn indicating support for the issue. The sign was so large and so ugly that only 1 out of 100 agreed to have the sign placed on their lawn.

So the School Board tried another tactic. Knowing the issue was a positive one, the volunteers then went door to door asking homeowners if they would place a small 3″ by 5″ card in their window indicating support of the issue. Many people said “yes” to this trifling request.

But get this. Once the homeowner agreed to place the card in his window, the School Board sent the homeowner a letter … thanking him for their support. In other words, the School Board acknowledged the homeowner’s contribution to the campaign. Two weeks later, when another volunteer came to the homeowner’s door, asking if the large sign could be placed in her yard, 95% said “yes.”

The lesson was clear. Getting a small commitment started the process of followership. And the acknowledgement of that small commitment opened the door to more commitment and more cooperation.

Whether or not you’re a “born” leader, you can do any and all of the 6 leadership behaviors I’ve just outlined. Now it’s your turn to do it.

Action:  Look at the 6 leadership behaviors outlined above. Rank order them from 1 to 6, 1 being the behavior you are best at and 6 being the one that needs the most improvement.